Five Signs I’m not in South Carolina Anymore: Hola Salamanca!

Katie West is a student at University of South Carolina and an ISA featured blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Salamanca, Spain.

Why yes, I am studying in one of the prettiest cities in the world:Salamanca. No big deal

I’ve now been in Spain for six weeks (how did that happen??), and I’m constantly going back and forth between feeling really comfortable in Salamanca and feeling just as American as I did when I arrived. These have been the biggest adjustments:

1. Walking everywhere. Unless I’m headed to class, a friend’s apartment or a restaurant near South Carolina’s campus, I really can’t walk to anywhere I need to go back in the U.S., and neither can most people I know. Here, everyone walks – to the grocery store, to work, to drop their kids off at school or simply to get out of the house for a little bit. This is one culture change I’ve adopted with enthusiasm. I have more free time here than I do at school in the U.S., so if it takes me 30 or 45 minutes to walk somewhere, it’s not a huge deal. After my classes are done for the day, I usually have an hour or two before I need to head home for lunch, so I usually take the opportunity to meander around Salamanca, exploring the side streets and scouting out new cafes. It’s helped me really get to know the city after only a few weeks, and it makes me feel a little better about eating all the bread my host mom feeds me. It’s a win/win situation.

Plaza Mayor, which I walk through to go to pretty much anywhere in Salamanca from my apartment

2. The daily schedule. Have you ever heard of “Spain Time?” It’s real. Spaniards thrive on it. Breakfast is small and served whenever you get up, and lunch is LATE – my host family starts eating between 2:45 and 3 p.m. The afternoon lasts until 9 or 10 p.m., when you sit down for dinner. If you’re looking for good nightlife, there’s no point in heading out before one or two in the morning at the earliest, and if you really want to live like the Spaniards, stay out until 5:30 or 6 a.m. And don’t worry if you’re running a few minutes late for class, because the professor probably is, too.

3. Clothes. This change might have been bigger for me than for others because most of the students at South Carolina dress very casually to go to class, and because my hometown of Chattanooga is full of outdoors enthusiasts and hippies (in the best possible way!). In contrast, Salamantinos (natives of Salamanca) look, well, spiffy. All the time. For the first time ever, I’ve actually had to put thought into what I’m going to wear to class. Most of the older women here wear long fur coats if it’s below 50 degrees outside, and some wear fairly high heels, which seems very counter-intuitive considering all of the walking they do on cobblestone surfaces. I almost never see people wearing t-shirts in public, and I’ve got a sinking feeling that running shorts are going to be a no-go once the weather gets warmer – unless I’m actually going for a run.

Some ISA friends and I trying to blend in with the Spaniards by wearing anything but T-shirts

4. The shock of seeing ancient buildings casually tucked away between more modern ones. This is still jarring, and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. For example, there’s a Catholic church called Sancti Spiritus less than a block from my apartment that I pass every day on my way to Plaza Mayor and my classes. I wondered what its story was, so I looked it up online.

Construction began in the 1200s.

Sancti Spiritus, the 800-year-old church that I now attend! How cool is that?

It’s mindboggling that I live so close to an 800-year-old building, but it’s even more mindboggling that the people here don’t give it a second glance; Europeans are used to being surrounded by ancient history like this, and we Americans simply aren’t.

5. Being surrounded by Spanish. You might be thinking I’m an idiot right about now. I chose to study in a Spanish-speaking country, didn’t I? I really should have seen this coming. And I did – but there is a staggering difference between taking Spanish classes three times a week in the U.S. and having to translate every single aspect of your life to another language once you get over here.

One of my favorite activities here is trying to figure out what the different store signs mean

The news, movies, billboards and TV shows are in Spanish. The instructions on your bottle of medicine are in Spanish. The economics class you’re taking, which wouldn’t have been your strong point in English, is in Spanish. The bus schedule you’re trying to read is in Spanish, and the man helping you find your way across town is giving you directions in Spanish. The fourth graders in the English class you’re volunteering with are speaking Spanish, and it makes them sound a whole lot smarter than you.

It was very disorienting at first, believe me. But the longer I’m here, the more comfortable I am, and the more grateful I am for this incredible opportunity to experience something completely new.

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Katie, sounds like you’re doing alright. I was in Salamanca decades ago and it still has a hold on me. The total immersion is a bit uncomfortable, but the only way to really learn a language (more interesting too). Builds character and confidence too. Some days you’ll get very tired and weary and it’s okay to go on an English binge for the evening , but just for the evening. Very different from providing Spanish speakers here with virtually no opportunity or incentive to learn English.

    Europeans are very different about public space than Americans. They believe people have an obligation to not be an eyesore to others, and that how you dress,and behave (manners are very important,but if you’re a southerner, you’ll be just fine) is a reflection of not just your character and your family’s, but your family, community, and nation. You aren’t an individual in that sense but connected to folks you have no choice but to represent.
    Being ‘Bien educado’ doesn’t refer to book knowledge or profession, but knowing how to act civilized. So, find out how the natives handle running and take a page from them.

    I miss seeing people so well dressed; it’s so dignified and does affect behavior.

    Which reminds me. Drinking for fun is not encouraged, so forget binge drinking. Being drunk in public except for some exceptions is not well tolerated either because you lose all dignity in such a state.
    Spaniards are individualistic, though, but in a different way from Americans. People’s flaws are their own and trying to correct or judge folks is an infringement on their right to be who they are; flaws and all. That doesn’t mean you can hurt people or that an alcoholic isn’t encouraged to get help. But telling people how to be “better” will get you a real dressing down.
    The American talk show thing of getting people to reveal all their weaknesses is not truly respected even though they have similar shows, because it encourages pitying people and pity lowers a person’s dignity; something not tolerated in Spain.

    Forgive the long note. These are things that I wish I had realized early on in my stay. It would have helped me to understand Spaniards better.

  2. I’m from Southern California and are leaving to Salamanca in February for three months. Please tell me if it’s really cold in Salamanca in February, March and April. I’m not sure if I should bring a heavy coat or light coat. Do I need sweaters or just long sleeve blouses.

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