Reverse Culture Shock

  • 285 days
  • 23 flights
  • 10 months
  • 9 countries
  • 8 languages
  • 7 engineering classes
  • 5 niños
  • 4 Cantabria students
  • 3 Cornell students
  • 2 incredibly supportive parents who made this all possible
  • 1 long year of trying to mentally prepare myself to come back

Tuesday starts classes and, along with it, the real reverse culture shock.

In Spain, university is a little different. For one, we only had two weeks off for Christmas break, we came back and had class for another week and a half, and then had exams until the end of January. After my last exam I remember walking home and having that strange but pleasant realization that I don’t have anything in particular that I have to write or calculate or hand in on a certain date at a certain time; of having a seemingly infinite amount of free time, if only for a short while. But somehow I was lacking that usual feeling of great relief that I would always experience while walking out of my last final at the end of a semester at Cornell, as if someone removed all the cinderblocks sitting on top of me and I could finally take a deep breath for the first time since school began. It wasn’t that I thought I had done poorly on my exams and I was worried (in fact quite the opposite, as the Cantabria courses were quite a bit simpler than Cornell’s), but rather that this time, I suddenly realized, I hadn’t even been holding my breath in the first place.

If I had to choose one instance to characterize my experience abroad, at least academically, it would be this.

In Spain I was not constantly tired and I would get stressed out almost exclusively during finals. And even then, only moderately. And even then, not for all of them. In Spain there was almost never any uselessly tedious or overly theoretical homework. The professors took the time to answer questions and only one (out of thirteen) got annoyed with the frequency of mine. In Spain no one was downing cups and cups of coffee to squeeze in one more problem or one more essay before the crack of dawn. No one was comparing their grades with their classmates or beating themselves up for getting a 9 instead of a 10. No one was fretting over their next internship or their GPA or their extracurriculars or their E-board position. They didn’t fill every waking moment with something scheduled, and instead of just working through lunch they actually took a break to go eat something. In Spain they made spending time with friends and family a priority. In Spain I felt balanced; I felt like a real person.

In Spain. But I’m not in Spain anymore. I’m at Cornell, where one of the smart alecky students would probably tell me “all of that is the reason for Spain’s current suffering economy” (that is false, please go take an economics class), “Spaniards are just lazy like that” (also false, please go meet some working Spaniards), or “that’s why Spain isn’t as productive as the U.S.” This last one is actually true, and when one Spaniard said this to me, my response was “so what?” Productivity isn’t everything. If we can cure all diseases and live to be a hundred and fifty but its a century and a half of being overworked and overstressed without the joys of leisure, art, or simply doing things for fun, I will gladly opt for the shorter, happier life.

Perhaps this type of high-pressure, high-stress, and highly competitive environment is just an American thing. Or maybe an Ivy League thing. Or an engineering thing. Or solely an American Ivy League engineering thing. Whatever it is, if this mentality is considered the pinnacle of education and what every school should strive to be, I am more than slightly concerned with where our priorities lay.

While I am incredibly excited to see all my friends, continue working with my Engineers Without Borders team, lead the Cornell Catholic Community, continue volunteering with Alpha Phi Omega, and take advantage of all the amazing opportunities Cornell’s campus has to offer, I have never been so ready to finish school. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not senioritis, I love to learn and always will. It’s simply that I love to feel like a real human being even more.

Spain (in combination with Bolivia last summer) gave me the opportunity to take one giant step back and look at my life, the world, and their intersection, as a whole, with infinitely greater clarity. After getting so caught up in the minute and insignificant details for a couple of years, I was reminded who I began doing this for in the first place, and thankfully that alone is enough to get me through this final year.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

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Grand Budapest Ho[s]tel

As part 2 of my Easter break, I took a bus from Vienna to Budapest to spend a couple of days in the original “twin cities.” I was pretty excited to cross another land border (the only other being Canada) but to my disappointment there wasn’t even so much as a sign anywhere denoting that we were crossing into Hungary, but it’s also possible that I missed it. I checked google maps every now and then to see where our little blue dot was and just after passing through what seemed like another toll both archway thing it showed we had crossed the border, so I’m assuming that was all it was.

Of course, first thing the next morning I head to the main square to meet up with a free walking tour to learn a little bit more about my new temporary home, and the first thing, and possibly most important, that I learn is that Pest is not pronounced “pest,” but rather “pesht.” Pest in Hungarian means “disease” so the tour guide half jokingly explained that we would make all Hungarians really happy if we didn’t refer to their beloved city as such.  We started in Pest, he taught us why all the buildings are the same height, the diverse effects of the communist regime, and then we crossed the bridge over to Buda where he showed us around the Castle (which is more like a little community on a hill), around the famous church, and through the beautifully blooming cherry blossoms.

The tour lasted until early afternoon so he offered to show us where to get real Hungarian food (and therefore less expensive than tourist food) in this incredibly hidden little cafeteria in the upstairs of a building on the Castle grounds. I decided to blindly point and see what I got and I ended up with little pieces of fried dough (that seemed to be the standard base), and some mushrooms in a sauce. Whatever it was, it was delicious. There happened to be another girl by herself, about my age, who asked if she could sit with me and I said of course. She was from France and was only in Budapest to take a standardized exam to get into a Business school, and we talked at great length about what we had thought Budapest would be like and what it actually turned out to be. That’s the wonderful thing about traveling is that even if you travel alone, you still choose whether or not to be alone.

I honestly can’t even tell you with exact certainty what I ended up doing that afternoon (don’t worry, I was completely sober) because I just got so blissfully lost in the beauty of the foliage and the history and the sunshine and the people. I definitely roamed the Castle for quite a bit, went up to the top of the Cathedral to get a better view of the city, and I must have spent a solid thirty minutes, maybe an hour, in one of the main parks just lying in the sun where all the other young whippersnappers (and their dogs) were hanging out. As I was laying there I also happened to overhear a conversation (in English to my surprise) where a young man sat down on some steps next to a girl maybe a little older than me and asked her if she believed in God. She replied that she was an atheist and he asked if she had read the Bible. She replied that she had actually studied the Bible quite a bit and had explored many beliefs but had settled on believing that there was no God, and even if there were, he left creation after he made it long ago. The man was clearly Christian and believed otherwise, but it wasn’t an argument, it was a brief and kindhearted conversation. I only wished that small instances like this weren’t such a rare occurrence.

I decided to walk through town a bit and I happened upon a little donut shop that happened to also be an bookshop (conveniently with books written in English). I decided to stop in and I got an apple pie donut and picked up Matilda by Roald Dahl. I ended up staying almost until the shop closed because I was sucked in by the story, even though I read it when I was little.

For dinner I went back to the Easter market in the square where the tour had met that morning and again I simply picked something and pointed to it. It was some sort of fried pancake thing with roasted vegetables and rice and again, it was amazing whatever it was.

The following morning I got up early to avoid the probable crowds at the famous baths, which was a good call, because the thermal ones were actually relatively small. There was a full size swimming pool (the morning was chilly so I steered clear) and two smaller thermal baths, and although it seemed no different from any other heated swimming pool, it was still quite relaxing. I spent a good long while just floating around, letting the notion sink in that pre-enroll was in exactly a week (the first concrete sign that my time abroad was about to come to a screeching halt) and enjoying the two things I rarely had the opportunity to experience at Cornell: doing absolutely nothing and being warm.

When I got back to the city center I had quite a bit of time before my next endeavor, which was at a set time, so I went back to the donut book shop, bought myself some coffee, and finished reading my previous day’s investment, Matilda.

After a while I went to what’s called the Invisible Exhibition. I happened upon it when randomly searching Budapest on TripAdvisor, and it had great reviews so I decided to check it out. It’s more of an experience than anything else, because a tour guide leads your group through various “places” such as a house, a street, a forest, a bar, etc. in complete darkness (they’re all just rooms though, we didn’t cross actual streets, don’t fret). It was moderately disconcerting staring into space and yet seeing absolutely nothing for about 45 minutes, but it was highly eye-opening (pun intended). We had to follow each other like ducklings, feel statues and try to figure out what they were (astonishingly I guessed the Atlas one correctly), try to distinguish different valued coins (result: impossible), and much more. There were a lot of small things that are very difficult to do without sight that hadn’t really occurred to me before. For one you can’t read and play music at the same time, you can’t really paint, and you can’t read. This last one sounds obvious and I know that braille exists but it had never seemed so real to me that some people can’t simply pick up a book and read it. And I love to read, so that made me really sad. Near the end our guide revealed that she was essentially blind, having lost her sight around the age of 20 (the same age as me). Although I couldn’t figure out how she moved around so easily, as I hadn’t noticed anything unusual about her when we met before the tour. I’d have to say, apart from exploring Budapest in general, this was my favorite part.

The next day I had a flight to Rome, part three of my Easter break, and after my Bolivia flight fiasco last summer and nearly missing my flight to Dublin in March, I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I was pretty hungry by the time I got there and they hadn’t even posted the gate number yet so I went and got lunch. Ryanair only tells you the gate thirty minutes before boarding, and their take off time almost always ends up being their boarding time (but they still arrive on time because they factor in so much extra time). That being said, I wasn’t worried at all about getting to the gate until I went and looked at the departure screen twenty minutes before boarding time (so only ten minutes after they even posted it), and it says last call. I panic for a hot second, and then take off across the airport trying to find signs to tell me where to go and silently cursing Ryanair for its shenanigans. Before I even get to the gate I encounter a line of people on the same flight waiting to even get to the gate waiting area. So of course, they haven’t even started boarding yet and I look like a crazy person dashing across the airport and completely out of breath by the time I get there. But hey, I made it.

Butterflies, Doggos, Pianos, and Yo-yos

…these are a few of my favorite things!

Unfortunately I didn’t get to visit Salzburg, but believe me, if the time and money had presented itself, I would’ve been there in a heartbeat. And if you didn’t get the reference, please go enrich your life and watch The Sound of Music.

Since Cornell’s spring break this year was right before my Easter break, my friend Lauren decided to come visit me in Spain for the week! And since she had never been to Europe before and flying to JFK out of anywhere was equally expensive, we decided to hop on over to Vienna as well where we would have two days together before she had to return home.

She stuck it out for my last few days of classes, getting to sleep in while I was in class (so until 2 PM), and in the afternoons we would go out and explore. I took her to some of my favorite places in Santander, one being the faro, or lighthouse, and wee went to the pre-history museum, which I hadn’t visited in all the months I’d already been there.

The only downside was that it’s incredibly difficult to find completely gluten-free food in Spain, which poses an obstacle with Celiac disease. Nearly everything has bread in some form, so even if a dish doesn’t explicitly contain bread, there’s so much of it around that pretty much everything is contaminated anyway. When we didn’t eat at home we had to do some serious googling to find good places to eat, and we actually ended up finding places I’d never been before. For example, Cadelo was a super tiny restaurant near the funicular, so pretty close to where I lived, and they basically take regular dishes and trade out each ingredient for something really distinct. For example they had Korean lasagna whose “noodles” were crunchy things (whose name I don’t recall), it still had some sort of ground meat, and the sauce was white and had something to do with either lychee or kimchi. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before.

That Thursday, being the beginning of my Easter break, we set off for Vienna from Bilbao. It took a three hour bus ride and two flights to get there, with a short layover in Brussels, and we arrived that evening. The next morning we decided to start out with a not-so-touristy option and scoped out the clock museum.

We got there a bit too early before it opened, so we backtracked and wandered around a little Easter market that we had passed on the way there that was just beginning to come to life. There were hundreds of hand-painted Easter eggs, stained glass, odd-looking edible options, and beautifully adorable earrings carved out of bull horns (humanely retrieved from bulls that were already dead, don’t worry, I asked). I definitely would have bought a pair or two had they not been $25 each.

The clock museum ended up being surprisingly delightful, with any kind of clock you can think of and more: grandfather clocks, picture clocks, astronomical clocks, japanese clocks (from before time was standardized), and my favorite was a hand-written clock that told time, astronomical position, date, and a million other things, made by a monk some centuries ago.

Since, it had begun to rain quite a bit and I was feeling really nostalgic, I convinced Lauren to go to a butterfly garden next to a really famous art museum. It was in a type of greenhouse, and although it was really humid to keep the butterflies happy, I greatly appreciated how warm it was compared to the cold rain outside. I felt like a little kid getting to watch all the colorful insects flit around and observe the ones still in their chrysalides (fun fact, that’s the actual plural form of chrysalis apparently, like the aforementioned platypodes).

Afterwards we decided to start trying to find lunch and eventually we ended up at a café called Allergiker, which is a little tiny family-run café that is 100% allergy free (unless you’re allergic to dogs). All of their dishes were completely void of gluten, lactose, soy, meat, nuts, and anything else you can think of. We both ordered the daily special, the risotto, and it was AMAZING. We also spotted their huge fluffy dog and pet him as he wandered past our table, and there was a piano for anyone to play. At that point I hadn’t played a real piano (the one in Ireland was more of a science experiment) since the previous May, about 10 months prior, so I was ecstatic. I played the only song I remembered off the top of my head (Falling Slowly) and then I just improvised until they brought us the check. We liked it so much that we came back the next day as well.

We visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral that afternoon and as we were leaving we were ambushed by a gentleman who looked like he was dressed to be a royal something-or-other. He gushed about the Royal Orchestra that was performing that weekend and he asked us if we’d been to see it yet because it was a “must-see” in Vienna. I remembered the father of one of the Spanish families I taught English telling me that even thought it’s a little expensive, if I had the chance I should go see a concert while visiting. I asked him how much it was and I was able to haggle the price down because we were students, and, since I can sometimes be a little too trusting,  it didn’t even occur to me that there was a possibility it could be a scam until Lauren voiced some concern. In the end we decided to go with it: he gave us the address, our tickets with the seat numbers, and to get there before 7:30.

After going back to the hostel for a bit and drying our soaking wet shoes and socks (as it had decided to pour the entire day), we set out to find a restaurant for dinner, as there weren’t many options. We settled on a slightly more expensive place because it had gluten-free options and it was rather close, but we still got slightly lost, more than slightly wet, and arrived later than intended. We had to wait quite a bit for our food, and when it came Lauren’s was a normal amount but mine ended up being just a few small spinach dumplings (delicious nonetheless), but we were afraid to order more food because it would take too long. We asked for the dessert pancakes to-go, the check, and ate quickly. As soon as the pancakes came in their little box we booked it to the metro station where we started eating the pancakes while waiting for the train. It was probably an odd sight but definitely worth it because I at least was still hungry and the pancakes had homemade apricot jam and oh my goodness it was amazing.

We arrived at the address with two minutes to spare, Lauren still joking that we were going to get kidnapped and/or murdered, and we were directed by a well-dressed gentleman into a fancy elevator with a family. Upon exiting the elevator I was delighted to confirm that it was in fact the real deal, because in the vestibule they were selling CD’s, parephernalia, alcoholic drinks, and they even had a coat check.

The audience was smaller than I had imagined but the performance surpassed all expectations. It was a seven person orchestra that sounded like fifty, they played beautiful classics and other pieces I hadn’t heard before, there were dancers, an opera singer, and the conductor even made a few jokes in between everything. All in all, it was fantastic and completely worth it.

The following morning, since the weather forecast was much better, we decided to attend a free walking tour. We took the tram this time because the metro didn’t run very near to the meeting point, but as a result it took much longer due to traffic, so we got there about ten minutes late. Apparently our tour had already left, but the Spanish one was still there. We joined in anyway and, thanks to my handy dandy new Spanish skills, I asked the guide about the English tour. She said that we could join the Spanish tour for the first half and that we would cross paths with the English one halfway through and that we could switch then. Since Spanish tour was better than no tour we decided to stick with it and Lauren ended up hardly even needing translations! We got to see everything from the stables, the garden monument of Mozart, the first ever coffee shop, the government buildings, churches, and parts of the Jewish quarter.

That afternoon we decided to visit the Schonbrunn Palace, as we’d had many recommendations to visit it, but we ended up getting there just before closing time so we couldn’t go inside. However, there was a lovely Easter market outside so we explored all the beautiful crafts, and I especially enjoyed the stall with the wooden toys 😉

Then we went to the famous and preposterously fancy Mozart Café and got chocolate cake to celebrate Lauren’s last few hours in Vienna before she had to head to the airport. After stopping back at the hostel to pick up her stuff and seeing her off at the metro station I headed back to the hostel and in the kitchen a couple of girls asked me if I wanted some pasta. Not about to turn down a free dinner, we started talking and it turns out that they were from the U.S., also studying in Spain, and traveling around a bit. They had just gotten there, coming from Budapest, which is where I was going the next day. They gave me some recommendations and it was really cool to share the similarities and differences in our experiences as Americans in Spain.

The bus ticket to Budapest I had bought for the next morning, but on the tour I learned of the Church of the Augustinian Friars and that there would be Palm Sunday mass held that morning. Thankfully I was able to change the bus ticket without any extra charge (another reason traveling Europe is a million times easier than the U.S.) so I was able to start off Holy Week in the most beautiful church at my first mass in German. Palm Sunday has the longest Gospel reading of the year and I understand pretty much no German at all so I wasn’t sure how that was going to work. I have an app with all the daily readings in Spanish so I pulled that up and luckily this is also the one time a year when different people read the different parts, so based on who was speaking and key words (like names, “Jesus,” and the few words that sound the same in both languages), I was able to follow along reading at just the right speed. I love that about the Catholic Church: no matter where you are or what language you speak, you can still participate and it’s still home.

Still in awe of the incredible choir and music of the mass, I meandered back to the hostel, picked up my stuff, and started walking to the bus station. At that point the only land border I’d ever crossed was to Canada, but not on a bus nor on my own, so I wasn’t sure how it would work. The lady at the desk simply asked me for my passport, barely glanced at it, and waved me on; she didn’t even ask to see my bus ticket. Since I had about three hours until arriving in Budapest, I figured I should sew the rip that had suddenly appeared in my jeans on the first day after leaving Spain (of course). Having to travel very light, I had only brought two pairs to begin with, so I was essentially down to 1.5 pairs of pants just one day into my two-week trip. If you’d asked me to imagine my study abroad experience, I would not have included in my list of likely memorable moments receiving some inquisitive looks while sewing my pants on a crowded bus between countries. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.