Study Abroad, de Verdad

Monday

I wake up around 8:30 and attempted to finish the last question of my Uncertainty Analysis (UA) (what a fancy name for statistics) problem set. The question, however, doesn’t make much sense and seems pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of both the class material and my life, so I just jot down a couple things and leave it.

At 11:00 my Ingeniería Sanitaria (IS), aka Environment Engineering, class starts and I have to eat a snack beforehand or else I’ll never make it to lunchtime. It’s my only class in Spanish and I pretty much had to put up a fight to get it approved because it’s outside the Cornell exchange program and the same class is already offered within the program in English. I just thought it would be a waste to spend an entire year studying in Spain and not take a single class in Spanish, and my options were limited because Cornell Engineering is super picky about what they’ll approve. It’s a really interesting class and even though I don’t think I’ll ever need to calculate the volume of a landfill required for a city (essentially the first third of the class was about waste management), we’re starting to get into water contamination and treatment. I actually find it highly practical to learn all this, not just as an engineer, but as an educated human being who should be aware of the environmental impact they make every single day.

Each of my classes is two hours long (twice a week), so at 1:00 I slip into Aula Cornell, the classroom where all the Cornell program classes are taught, trying not to be too disruptive. Since the Cornell program didn’t modernize it’s daily schedule along with the rest of the university, the class times are offset by an hour, so IS overlaps with the first hour of UA every Monday. In all honesty, it’s more of a blessing than a curse because I don’t learn anything in UA. We have a PDF of notes written by the professor, the textbook, and a PDF of all the homework assignments for the semester, and the lectures consist of overly theoretical explanations of otherwise relatively basic concepts and equations. When the professor is trying to clarify a particularly difficult-to-explain concept it always ends the same way: “it’s similar to *example that doesn’t make much sense* but not really, so ehhh…well, you’ll figure it out.” So logically I don’t pay any attention to the lecture and just work on the homework during class teaching myself everything from the notes and textbook. And the best part is that for only the most complicated equations does the professor choose to use different symbols for variables in his PDF of notes than in the textbook so that I have to actually create a key in my own notes so that I can switch between the textbook and his notes and not be entirely lost. For example, for one equation (and this is just one) the professor’s beta equals the textbook’s alpha, his theta equals the book’s beta, and the textbook simply gives you mu but for the professor if you want to find mu you have to take the natural log of beta (the professor’s beta, not the book’s beta). I wish I were making this up. Oh and he finally told us when our exam will be, a mere two weeks beforehand, and only because I specifically asked him if we could fix a date already.

Class ends at 2:00, Spanish lunch/siesta time, and since my motivation level is normally highest on Mondays I head to my favorite study spot in the Interfacultativo (Education) building, about halfway between Caminos (the civil engineering building) and my flat, to do some homework. I’m still not sure if you’re allowed to eat in the library but I’m always on the third floor where none of the staff are and I don’t make a mess so I’m just gonna go with it. It’s my favorite place to work because it has floor-to-ceiling windows and a beautiful view of the Parque de las Llamas, and you can even see all the way to the ocean.

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Since my sushi craving has been gnawing at me for the past week, I go to one of the few sushi restaurants in Santander with some friends. It was a tiny place with just 4 tables, two long and two short, but the sushi is fantastic. We go at 8:30 and Spanish dinnertime is ~9 PM so we’re basically like old geezers at an early bird special when you think about it. Good company + good sushi = a great end to a Monday.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning I have Coastal Engineering at 8:30 and this particular Tuesday we have our first lab session. It’s relatively straightforward in that we go through all the concepts we learned in class and the derivation of the relevant equations pretty quickly and then watch different types of wage propagate through a huge wave flume in the hydraulics lab. It’s all about ocean waves, tides, their behavior, and coastal structures like ports and breakwaters. This might be my favorite class this semester because, growing up in Florida, I always loved watching the ocean from the beach and airplanes and now I actually have a better understanding of how it functions.

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After coastal we have an hour and a half before UA so normally Catrina, Paula, (my fellow Floridians) and I go to the café in the next building over and do homework and enjoy the occasional café con leche or Spanish tortilla. At 12 we migrate back to Aula Cornell for class but I just continue working on my UA homework and normally finish at least the first half by the time class ends at 2.

Since I spend nearly all morning in class on Tuesdays, afterwards I usually get lunch with friends or go home to take a brain break. Since it’s super rainy and chilly, I head back to my flat, about an 8-minute walk straight down the street that the university sits on (I live in front of the Derecho & Economías (Law and Economics) building that’s on the opposite end of campus from Caminos). In the lobby I have to stand on my tip toes to peep into our mailbox (a guilty pleasure of mine every time I come home, even though I know it only comes once a day) and to my delight there’s a thin white envelope sitting there. I see that it’s addressed to me and get excited, and then I see that it’s from the Papal Prefecture of the Vatican and my heart skips a beat. About a month prior I planned a trip to Rome during Holy Week and requested tickets to the masses at the Vatican, knowing that you’re supposed to request them 2-6 months in advance (and since it was for Easter, more like 6). I open it as quickly and carefully as possible, so as to not ruin the official seal printed on the envelope, and by the time I get in the elevator I’ve pulled it out, mentally preparing myself or disappointment…but there’s no need!! I start jumping up and down until I realize that it probably isn’t such a smart idea to jump in an elevator.

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At 6:30 I take the bus to the outskirts of Santander to see two of my niños. Miguel is 14 but he has class so it’s just me and Maria, who’s a whip-smart 12-year-old. She’s pretty much a mini-me in so many ways, which is really cool but actually a little scary; we even have the same birthday. The goal is to “teach” them English but they’re both practically fluent (Maria doesn’t even have an accent when she speaks; she sounds 100% American), so we basically just hang out during our sessions and do whatever we feel like. Recent shenanigans have included bilingual bananagrams and scattegories (meaning they play in English and I in Spanish to make it even), baking apple pie, and looking up trailers and scenes of scary/sad movies (like the shipwreck scene of Titanic).

However, today was cold and rainy so we just sat at the kitchen table drinking tea and talking about life. I honestly don’t even remember exactly what we talked about but it was just really relaxing and took my mind off of school and I genuinely like spending time with Maria. She’s probably the most mature and intelligent 12-year-old I have ever met, and from the very beginning I knew it was going to be hard to say goodbye to her at the end of the year. At the end of the session their dad very kindly drives me home like he does most days, which I appreciate greatly because the bus system is weird and getting home takes 40 minutes as opposed to the 10 minutes it takes me to get there.

Wednesday

Wednesday mornings are my homework mornings because I don’t have class until 12:00 and it’s my only class of the day (something that would never happen at Cornell). I study for my Coastal exam coming up on Friday and when that starts getting on my nerves I decide to update my “wall.” It’s the bit of wall in the corner next to my bed where I hang all my postcards, letters, race tags, etc. and it was long overdue for an update.  Plus, reading all the cards and things everyone has sent me this year make me feel extra loved.

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12-2PM is my Geotechnical Engineering: Foundations, Tunnels, and Excavations class (Geotech for short). I wasn’t originally planning on taking it because it’s not required and we already took the intro class last semester, but my options were limited. Testing soil and designing foundations isn’t exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life but it’s quite practical and really important in any building project. It’s also super cool to go a bit more in-depth about things that we touched on when we were designing/constructing the bridge in Bolivia and things I had already had some hands-on experience with.

After Geotech I go back to my favorite study spot and attempt to continue studying for coastal, but for some reason I just can’t focus. I just really really don’t feel like studying anymore.

Then 5:30 comes much faster than expected and I start walking to the house of my other set of niños. Pablo is 9 but already has the attitude of a teenager, Mateo is 4 and incredibly sweet with a hint of adorable sass, and Lola is 1 and has more energy than I’ve ever seen in a baby. Normally the parents take Lola (as she’s too young to start learning English) and go grocery shopping or just out somewhere, and I watch the boys. I try to always have an activity planned so that all doesn’t melt into chaos, but it’s incredibly difficult because half the time Pablo whines that he doesn’t like my ideas and then when I ask him what he wants to do he says “I don’t know.” Mateo is generally really well behaved but he also follows along with his older brother, so if Pablo is unhappy, everyone’s unhappy. While there are good days and bad days, today is actually probably the worst so far. We were going to make pancakes and the father had told me beforehand that it sounded great, which I took to mean they had checked to see they had the ingredients, but apparently they didn’t. So five minutes in I have no pancakes and two restless kids. Long story short, it ends up being two hours filled with sass, attitude, tears, time-outs, the father apologizing profusely, and me seriously considering quitting (but I didn’t).

On the way home I have to stop to get some groceries because I keep putting it off and two people are simultaneously messaging me asking for help with the coastal homework that’s due the day of the exam, Friday.  I normally go to a Salsa/Bachata class at 9:00 on Wednesdays but I don’t even get home until 9PM so I’ve already missed the beginner level class. I still haven’t eaten dinner either so I turn the stove on to make croquetas really quickly in an attempt to make it on time to the intermediate level class at 10:00, while simultaneously trying to help the others with their homework. I don’t even notice until I smell the burning plastic that the cutting board, which is on the stovetop but on a different burner from the one I (thought I) was using, is spreading everywhere because it’s very quickly turning into a liquid. I accidentally turned on the wrong burner. I jump up to open the window in an attempt to ventilate the smoke that’s quickly building up and to air out the burning plastic smell. Once I assure myself that the melted plastic has stopped spreading and my flat isn’t going to catch on fire I turn on the other burner and put the croquetas in the oil. I’m still trying to help with the homework so these also end up burnt and black, and when I try one to see if just maybe they’re still edible I also burn my tongue. Conclusion: they are not edible.

Somehow I manag to make new unburnt croquetas, scrape the hardened plastic off the stovetop, and finish homework help in time to make it to the intermediate Bachata class. I’ve never been to the intermediate class before but Bachata is like a Spanish swing dance (of which I took two semesters at Cornell) so I feel comfortable enough to try the faster paced class (I wouldn’t have tried if it were salsa though, I think it’s so much harder). Everyone else was too tired or busy studying so just Catrina and I went and have a blast. Partially because it’s less crowded than the beginner class, there are actually enough guys for each girl there, and the teacher is able to work one-on-one with each person more easily. The dance class is always one of the highlights of my week and, especially after my fiasco of an afternoon, it’s wonderful and relieving to forget about everything else.

Thursday

I wake up pretty groggy, even though I got an extra hour of sleep because my first class is at 9:30 instead of 8:30. After IS ends at 10:30 (class is only one hour on Thursdays but only for part of the semester, it’s a little confusing) I walk to the mini bank that’s on campus in the Derecho building to pay for my pilgrimage to Lourdes after Easter with a group from Santander, but the bank is closed for some reason. Still unable to shake the grogginess and seduced by the warm sunshine (something we haven’t had too much of recently), I find a nice little slope angled just towards the sun, pull out my notebook, open it, and proceed to convince myself that I’m study for the next 40 minutes. It was completely unproductive but completely worth it.

After Geotech from 12-2, Catrina, Priya, and I find a table outside to eat lunch and study for Coastal together. Yesterday Catrina and I had been entertaining the idea of going surfing because the weather was going to be so nice today (and what better way to study wave phenomena??) but at the last minute the “study” of study abroad kicked in and we decided to actually study.

At 4:00 I walk to the Interfacultativo building to meet Sofía, the Spanish girl I do a language exchange with once a week. Basically we meet up for an hour and just talk about whatever; she in English and I in Spanish. Today we’re meeting in the park to enjoy the beautiful weather and we end up spending the better part of the hour fangirling over the many adorable dogs meandering through. At 5:00 on the dot, a wall of fog rolls in at an alarming speed. It transitions from really warm and sunny to chilly and misty in just a few minutes. There’s been fog before in Santander, but never as thick or as fast as this, so it’s kind of eerie.

My friend Rachel, who’s studying in Rome this semester, is coming to visit for a few days and staying in Priya’s flat, but since Priya has class until 7 I offered to meet Rachel at the bus station at 6. It’s quite disappointing that she missed the amazing weather, but we decide to walk to the university instead of taking the bus and we have a great time catching up. We even stop in my favorite/the most beautiful church in Santander because we pass by it on the way.

I was planning on getting pintxos with them for dinner later, but when I get home and actually start  studying I realize how much I still have to cover before the exam tomorrow. I end up studying until midnight, taking a study break to make pumpkin blondies. In case you’re wondering, they fail miserably because the recipe calls for peanut butter so then you can’t even taste the pumpkin, and they don’t bake very well no matter how long I leave them in for so they end up being underbaked peanut butter brownies which is fine if you love peanut butter but I think it’s gross unless it’s baked into something so I’m really disappointed.

Friday

My exam is at 9:30 so I eat breakfast in commute (overnight oats are the best). We have two professors and a PhD student teaching different parts of our coastal class so they each wrote their own exam questions for their respective material, but the PhD student is the only one proctoring the exam. As he hands out the exam he informs us that we have an hour and a half but we could easily finish in 30 minutes (that’s what they all say). The professor that wrote the majority of the exam questions did not write very clearly worded questions at all (English isn’t his first language and we understand that, but on an exam it’s super important that the questions be really clear about what they’re asking), so we end up spending at least a third of the time listening to the student explain and re-explain what the questions are asking. As a result, the exam takes 1.5-2 hours instead of the 30 minutes it should have been. It wasn’t difficult, it just really annoying having to clarify so many details to simply understand what the professor wanted.

After trying to unwind my brain from the exam, I take Rachel to lunch at a Spanish vegetarian cafetería that I’ve been wanting to try. Neither of us are vegetarian but we both love vegetables and it’s a nice change from the constant barrage of meat and bread. We decide to go with the chef’s menú del día, which end up being some sort of carrot/sweet potato/pumpkin soup, stir fried veggies with rice, and fried shitake mushrooms, and we finish it off with some really lovely fruit and herbal tea.

I head home and do the first half of my UA homework before going to my niño’s house at 6:30. We hang out on Maria’s bed playing with their rabbit, Tambor (Thumper), when he suddenly bites me for no reason at all. He’s generally a pampered but really friendly bunny, so it’s really unlike him to freak out. We go upstairs to put him in his pen (which isn’t much of a punishment because it’s quite spacious) and then we start nosing around the room. There’s a huge nearly-finished puzzle on the table which we attempt to complete for a solid 5 minutes until we give up (only the sky was left so all the pieces were the same color). Then Maria starts looking through some drawers when she comes across an old hair dryer. I have no idea why this is of such interest but she wants to see if it still works so she scampers to the outlet across the room and as soon as I looked up to see what she’s doing there’s a flash and a gasp and all the lights go out. Naturally, her mom comes upstairs furious and talking so fast that I could barely understand what she’s saying, although the tone says it all. The lights came back on after a minute and we go downstairs. At this point it’s nearly time for me to leave anyway so I grab my coat, politely apologize to her mom (to which she responds that it’s not my fault at all but I still feel somewhat responsible) and say goodbye. Today her dad isn’t home so I take the bus home. The only two busses that stop at that particular stop come every thirty minutes,  one right after the other, so during the 20 minutes until the next one came I wander around a Lidl grocery store nearby just to kill time. I also have to transfer to another bus, so by the time I get home it’s been almost an hour.

At that point I’m just tired and it’s past 9PM so I don’t feel like making a real dinner. I had been planning on making fish or a salad which take very little preparation, but at the last minute I decide to go for the really lazy option: ham, cheese, and crackers, which takes zero preparation. Of course right after I’m finished, my brain frantically tries to remember which day of the week it is and I realize that it’s Friday. During Lent, Catholics aren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays. Since I hardly ever eat meat anyway, this isn’t really a big deal for me, but that also makes it more difficult to remember because meat is not normally on my radar at all, let alone remembering not to eat it on a particular day of the week. I even went to a specifically vegetarian restaurant for lunch without even thinking about it, and came so close to eating a salad (as non-meat as you can get) or fish (the normal go-to on Lenten Fridays). Oh well. If you eat meat because genuinely don’t remember though, it’s ok, so I don’t feel too bad. I’m just complaining about the irony of it all.

Normally I read before I go to bed but I decided to watch a movie today instead. Since coming to Spain I’ve made a point of trying to read and watch things in Spanish as much as possible, but I don’t like dubbed live-action movies. This is less because the words don’t match the mouth movements (which I know bothers some people but I don’t really mind), and more because I find it just too weird to hear different people’s voices, and especially because the Spanish ones always seem to be really high pitched and annoying. So I decide on Spanish Wreck-it Ralph!

Saturday

At the risk of sounding like a hermit, I didn’t really leave my flat all day. I finish my UA homework, review my IS notes and make flashcards for the material we covered this week, and start the coastal lab report that’s due on Tuesday. I also facetime my friend Chris and write some letters to send to friends in the states, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

I experiment with a new pumpkin pancake recipe for dinner and they turn out awesome (a nice consolation after the croqueta/cutting board fiasco). Why pumpkin you ask? WELL. I learned that the word for squash is also the word for pumpkin and there is absolutely no distinction between the two even though they are two completely different types of gourds (I’m sure my friend Sydney, an international agrictulture major, could write a dissertation on that). So now I have a bunch of pureed pumpkin in my freezer that I’ve been using to try new pumpkin recipes.

Before going to bed I read a couple of chapters of Harry Potter. I first read the series starting when I was 7 and continued to read them until the last one was published, and I reread them again sometime after that, but I realized last summer that it had been probably almost a decade since I had read them last and wanted to “rereread” them. This was just before I was headed to Bolivia and I wanted to practice Spanish so I came to the conclusion that I should just read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish. Because why not?? I wanted to reread them anyway, they don’t have a terribly high reading level, and that way at least if I didn’t understand absolutely everything I wouldn’t be lost in the story because I already had an idea of what was going on. It was perfect. I went to the book store and bought the first book and a pocket spanish dictionary (the cashier said “this will be interesting” and looked at me like I was slightly crazy),  took them to Bolivia in June, and now I’m almost finished with the 5th book. I definitely read a little slower in Spanish than in English, but over these five books the amount that I have to actually use the dictionary has decreased dramatically. The words I don’t understand are so few and far between now that sometimes I’m too lazy to even stop to look them up because I normally understand everything even without the one word.

Sunday

In the morning I study for my Geotech exam which is on Wednesday, but normally the exams for this class are pretty straightforward so I’m not too concerned. I also submit some last minute applications for a few summer internships (that would actually be on campus at Cornell). Rachel and I were going to attend mass together at 1:30 at the church that I always go to (the one we visited the day she arrived), but when I get there she says a man has just locked the church and told her the mass was at 5:00. I can’t understand why the schedule would have changed but then I realize it’s Spain’s Father’s Day so they must have special times. Instead we go back to my flat for lunch, which we were planning on doing after mass anyway. We make some salad and fish and talk about the similarities and differences in our experiences studying abroad, like living in Cornell housing with other Cornell students (Rachel) versus living with natives in a random flat (me), and how we really miss the sense of community and diverse extracurriculars and clubs at Cornell. Studying abroad is fantastic so oftentimes it seems like if there’s something to complain about then I’m doing something wrong and that everything should be just dandy, so it’s just nice to know that I’m not the only one who encounters frustrations, whether big or small.

After Rachel leaves to head for the airport I do some more homework and then head to mass just before 5. Mass ends up being at 5:30, despite what the guy said earlier (honestly I’m not surprised, that’s so Spain). When I get home, like every Sunday night, I make some tea, wrap myself in a blanket, and skype my parents. However, instead of talking for an hour or so as usual, we ended up skyping for two hours, which is a nice surprise. Calling my parents is always one of the highlights of my week (in a very different way from dance class though haha) because I get to tell them about absolutely everything that’s happened in the past week: the good, the bad, the frustrating, the exciting, and even the boring!

Before going to bed I read a couple more chapters of Harry Potter and get so into it that I actually end up staying up much later than I had anticipated. But Monday classes don’t start until 11, something I’m going to miss when I return to Cornell, so might as well take advantage now 😉

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