Learning from the Landscape
This summer, I have the opportunity to study abroad in Salamanca, Spain for eight weeks. I am immersed in Spanish through my literature, grammar, and conversation classes, but I am also stepping out into Spain by taking weekend trips to beautiful cities like Santander, in the north of Spain. On a cloudy weekend at the beginning of my program, I sat in a bus that rumbled along the curvy roads of northern Spain. My eyes were glued to the view outside the window, and I pulled out my phone camera several times to take pictures but put it away disappointed because the simple machine couldn’t capture the pure beauty of the vibrant hills.
The villages hiding in the hills took no mind to the 21st-century vehicles hurrying along the sturdy asphalt highway to their destinations. The sturdy little red houses rested further into the earth in a quiet state of knowingness, as if they were aware that they’d always been there and would be there for years after the hurried cars and buses with fascinated study abroad students drove by in a flash.
Spanish Culture and Geography – Experiencing A World Outside the Classroom
The old red houses lay peacefully in the folds of the hills in northern Spain, hiding and peeking in their green crevices as if to snuggle into the earth. Most of the buildings were old enough to tell stories of civil wars and generations of Spaniards that had swaddled their children and buried their old within the same hills for ages. Now, they seemed to be innocently at rest. Where the buildings huddled close together, they formed a village. Scratched yet sacred stone churches peeked out of the villages like a watch on alert, standing above the houses cozy in the hills as if God’s buildings had never ceased to guard the souls of the villages for the last millennium.
Memories in Santander
Santander is a tourist town on the Cantabrian Sea, and it holds a rich history, beautiful beaches, and now for me, memories. Because the region of Cantabria in the north of Spain is colder than the rest of the country, many cities in the region become popular tourist destinations in the summer to escape the heat. Santander became a popular tourist destination when, in the early 20th century, the city built a palace for the royal family in the hopes that it would entice them to vacation in the city. It worked, and because the royal family was vacationing in Santander, the rest of the country followed suit. Santander remains a popular tourist destination to this day with many seafood restaurants, beaches, and surfing, and the city maintains its beautiful rain gardens with the copious amounts of rain they get compared to the rest of the country.
One of my favorite things about this weekend trip and my study abroad trip so far has been learning about fun facts and bits of history and culture from tours, classes, and my study abroad directors and then being able to go out into the culture and experience them.
Experiencing the differences in the Spanish language has taught me a lot about the way I speak it. Among Spanish-speaking countries, Spain is known for having a “lisp” in the accent. The “c” and “s” sounds are pronounced as a soft “sh” or “th,” thus causing words like “gracias” to be pronounced like “gra-thi-ash” and “Barcelona” like “Bar-the-lon-a.” This accent is maintained to certain degrees throughout the country, but the lisp is softer and the accent is clearer in northern Spain as compared to the rest of the country. The south of Spain speaks with a stronger, faster accent. Salamanca, the city I live in, is located in the center of Spain near Madrid, and the accents here carry a distinct Spain lisp while still being clear enough for language learners to understand (most of the time.)
There are five official languages in Spain which include Aranese, Basque, Catalan, Galician and Spanish. These languages are regional, and in places like Barcelona, the people there are more likely to speak Catalan or English than Spanish. The region I live in speaks predominantly Spanish.
Food Fun Facts
One of the best ways I’ve found to truly experience a country is to try every new food I come across. My stomach isn’t always happy about this, but I believe that inexplicable stomach pains come with traveling abroad.
Sangria, an alcoholic punch usually made with red or white wine and fruit, is one of the most well-known drinks to try when traveling to Spain. By EU regulations, only Spain and Portugal are permitted to call this drink mix “Sangria.” It is known by other names in other countries, but it remains well-known as “Sangria” around the world. In Spain and Portugal, it is mostly consumed by tourists rather than people who live in the country. The drink of the locals is the Tinto de Verano, which is a red wine with lemons.
Tapas are one of the most common foods that can be found at a restaurant in Spain. Tapas are a type of appetizer, but as pictured above, can be eaten as a full meal. Paellas are a form of rice with different mix-ins like vegetables or seafood. Tapas are one of my favorite things I’ve eaten here so far because of the variety, the taste, and the low price.
The word almuerzo is a commonly-used word for “lunch” in Latin America, but Spaniards use the word comer (to eat) for lunch instead. This is because lunch is the largest meal of the day in Spain, and is usually held around 2 or 3 PM. Breakfast at 8 AM is a light snack, and dinner is held any time between 8 PM and 11 PM. (I quickly felt like I would die from hunger if I maintained this meal schedule, so snacks became my best friend.)
Spaniards are much more direct with their requests and behavior than Americans. This pertains to everyday conversations, corrections, and ordering food. A common way to request a coffee in Spain is to simply say “Me da un cafe con Leche, por favor”; Give me a coffee, please. Or simply “Un cafe con leche, porfa”; Coffee, please.
In Madrid, Salamanca, and most cities in Spain, shopping looks a little different than in the United States. Many Spanish cities were built hundreds of years ago before cars, so the streets are walkable and distances to shops are short. Spain and many Latin American countries have many small stores for things that you might be able to buy at one store in the States, like a farmacía just for perfumes, everyday nutrition, or contact lenses. Calle Toro, the shopping street in Salamanca, contains little shops for just about anything you can imagine, from clothes to phones to tea to furniture. With the warm Spanish sun beating down on my head and (comparably) cheap European stores full of fashionable clothes, it becomes hard to tear myself away from Calle Toro, but all I have to do is remind myself of all the tapas I could eat for the price of a shirt and I easily walk away.
I’ve been in Spain for a few weeks, and during this time, I’ve swiftly realized how much culture is engrained into us as we grow up in it. Many of the things that I’m used to doing in the Midwest of the United States point me out as a cultural stranger in Spain, and simply by going out and walking on the street, I learn more about Spain. Small things like smiling at strangers when I make eye contact with them on the street and receiving a blank stare in return make me realize I interact differently with people in Spain because I grew up in a different place, and that it doesn’t mean that Spanish locals are rude when they don’t smile back.
Learning a language through emersion also requires learning how to use the body language, mannerisms, and attitudes of the culture. I’ve been asked several times if I actually speak Spanish at all when I’ve ordered food or coffee in Spanish because it has taken me longer to respond and because the affirmative or negative phrases I use set me apart as someone who is not “typical” of Spanish culture. As one of my friends from my study abroad group said at the beginning of our program, “We are here to learn, not to know,” and the more I experience culture outside the classroom, the more I find this to be true.
Little pieces of daily life and travel in Spain are teaching me about the country with and without speaking, like the little red clusters of houses bringing history to life, the waves of the sea pushing my surfboard, and the stares of Spaniards on the streets. I’m learning what mannerisms are Spanish and what mannerisms are humanely universal. I’m excited to continue learning in my classes and then going out to experience the world outside the classroom.