Dispatches from Abroad: Living and Learning in Barcelona
I arrived with several gross misconceptions, the biggest being that the average Barcelonan spoke English in addition to their native Castellano, the Spanish name for Spanish from Spain. I realized quickly that this wasn’t true and that outside of the tourist traps, one would be pretty hard pressed to find someone that spoke English. This was a pleasant disappointment and one I’d come to appreciate more and more as the months passed. Immersion really is the best way to learn a foreign language and I easily expanded my vocabulary and improved my speaking skills several times over in my first few weeks living in Barcelona.
I chose to study in Spain primarily to learn the language, but the nature of a departmental exchange is that students enroll in the equivalent courses they’d be taking at their home universities had they not studied abroad. For me, that meant taking classes in computer architecture and artificial intelligence to keep up with my engineering curriculum. Aside from a Spanish course I enrolled in with an outside company, my courses were taught in Spanish and some Catalan by UPC professors. My Spanish definitely was not on par with where it should have been for me to properly learn in a Spanish classroom, and this set me back a bit. It took about two months, but with a lot of hard work, help from some good friends, and checking Google Translate more than my facebook or email, I finally started feeling comfortable speaking Spanish. Before this, I couldn’t even go to office hours because I was intimidated and afraid I’d only be wasting the professor’s time with my poor Spanish.
The first day I went to office hours was actually a big day for me. In short, it was the day of what I’ll call my ‘language moment’ and it happened at the most innocent of times. I was chatting with one of my new friends, a grad student from Turkey, when she asked if I wanted to grab a coffee between classes. She’s a non-Spanish speaker and so we normally only spoke in English, but this day was different. I responded to her request without even thinking, quickly firing back how I had some work to finish up before class… in Spanish. She actually had to ask me to stop and switch to English. I was so surprised because I hadn’t even noticed what had happened until she spoke up. That was the first day I went to office hours, and what a good day it was. Needless to say, my in-class performance improved substantially in the following weeks.
Outside of the classroom was a whole different world. You have to live the language or culture you want to learn if you want to really learn it at all. I made sure I was seizing every opportunity I could to practice my Spanish, whether it be in the grocery store asking for help when I really didn’t need it, or in the metro stations offering help to people who looked even the slightest of lost. One thing that surprised me about my entire experience, however, was how receptive the general populace was to my ‘gringo’ self. I think because of my racially ambiguous skin color, people would generally think I was Hispanic (over the years I’ve had people guess me as many things) and be less adverse to speaking with me as I didn’t appear to be foreign. I had less trouble starting conversations and making friends with the locals, and I tried to make the most of this no matter where I was, starting conversations with people on the street just for the experience. Many of my less Latin-colored friends would report the opposite, even my fairer-skinned Italian roommates and darker-skinned African-American friends who spoke better Spanish than I did.
If I learned anything about people on this trip, it was that traveling is always better when you can find someone you know at your destination. We made a number of trips throughout Spain and Europe, and the ones where we met up with fellow students, or even friends of friends whom we didn’t know very well, were the best trips by far. A prime example would be when we, myself and two fellow students, traveled to Madrid. We met up with a ‘friend’ of one my companions, whom he had only ever spoken to online. We arrived in Madrid pretty skeptical about the whole situation, but this girl was amazingly kind and open despite just meeting us. She took us to meet a couple of her good friends, showed us all of Madrid, and even invited us back to her house for dinner. At her house, we were taken in as family, her mom having prepared a multi-course meal and even stayed up chatting with us until 1 in the morning, just because. And to top that off, her brother who came home to find strangers at his dinner table, didn’t miss a beat in making sure we were sufficiently full from dinner and even packing us food for our 6 am flight we had to catch later the next day. If that’s not hospitality, I don’t know what is. There really is something to the saying, “a friend of yours is a friend of mine” and we were lucky enough to be those friends of this family.
I think everyone has a different experience traveling abroad, and I’m so grateful that mine worked out as beautifully as it did. I think that everyone should have a chance to travel to another country for some period of time, because I believe that the only way to understand another culture is to live in it. We can’t hope to truly connect with people of other cultures if we can’t put ourselves in their shoes, but if we can get a glimpse of their world first-hand, we can at least imagine.
- Justin White, Computer Engineering