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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FAQ Part II

During this time of transition from studying in Spain to moving back and starting my summer internship on The Hill, much like last year I’ve been getting a sínfin of questions, so I figured a Part II would be appreciated.

What was the biggest difference in Spain?

If we’re not counting the foreign language part, the biggest adjustment was actually their daily schedule. Eating lunch at 3 PM and dinner at 10 PM with my host family for the first two weeks was a struggle. One day I forgot to bring a snack for the morning and during the last half hour of class I could barely focus or speak because my stomach hurt so much. (So how millions of children manage to go to school without breakfast every day, I have no idea). Once I moved into my own apartment it wasn’t so bad but I still had class until 2 so there was no way around that. After 10 months though I still don’t feel like eating lunch until 1 PM at the earliest, and I’ll eat dinner closer to 8. Never at 10 PM. Never again. Oh, and pretty much everything was closed 2-4 every day and all day on Sundays and I kept forgetting until I would walk up to a closed shop.

What was your favorite part?

This could go in a million different directions. Favorite city: Santander (might be biased). Favorite place to visit: wherever I have family (Dublin, Northampton, Paris, etc.) ((again, might be biased)). Favorite trip: spending two weeks during Christmas with my aunt and uncle in England. Favorite trip not to see family: Rome (probably because it was during Holy Week…biased?). Favorite trip not during Holy Week: I was very happily surprised by Krákow. Favorite tourist site: La Sagrada Familia, which is what originally inspired me to become an architect (then turned civil engineer). Favorite thing I learned: Spanish (of course). Favorite Spanish food: croquetas. Favorite non-Spanish food: this one particular brand of hummus. Favorite store: Primark. Favorite part of living in Spain: First, that I was much much closer to my extended family, so I was able to visit more often. Second, life is truly less stressful. People thoroughly understand the need to balance work and relaxation.

What was the most difficult part?

Trying to get anything done logistically. E.g. voting from abroad, opening a bank account, getting a class approved, applying for internships from abroad, etc. I’ll be writing a whole other post on this, just you wait.

What did you miss the most from the U.S.?

Honestly, probably my dog. I was able to stay in touch with my friends and family (probably more so than when I’m at Cornell because I had much more free time and flexibility in Spain) but my dog isn’t smart enough to recognize that the noise coming from the phone or the face on the screen is any sort of living being. Granted, the same goes for when I’m at Cornell, but normally I’m home for a month at Christmas, so it was just a long stretch of time without seeing him at all.

What was the hardest part about leaving?

María. 100%. (If you’re unfamiliar with the name, I also call her my niña, my Spanish mini-me, and the coolest 12-year-old I’ve ever met. She shares my affinity for baking, sea otters and platypodes, foreign languages, the color purple, and chocolate).

Are you fluent now?

Officially, no; technically, close enough. According to the international standard for fluency (set by Cambridge for English, Instituto Cervantes for Spanish) I am currently at level C1 in Spanish, which is normally labeled “proficient,” whereas C2 would be considered “fluent.” I actually decided to take the C1 exam in NYC last week, so if I pass I’ll get my Spanish certificate, which is really just a more official way of saying “yo hablo español” and will hopefully help me out if I apply for jobs in other (possibly Spanish-speaking) countries. BUT if by “fluent” you mean “can you read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish?” the answer is yes. Many people laughed or gave me weird looks when I mentioned that I’ve been re-reading HP in Spanish, but look who has a kick-butt vocabulary now!

Does that mean you’re bilingual?

Now instead of speaking two languages, or even one and a half, I feel like I don’t fully speak either anymore haha. One time I was writing an email and I wrote “I standed” and, truth be told, I would never have noticed anything wrong if that red underline hadn’t shown up. Even so, it took me a solid minute of wracking my brain to figure out why it was considered incorrect. Also, a lot of bilingual people will remember a word in one language but not the other. This has happened to me before, but sometimes I can’t think of the word in either language. However, there is also the increasingly frequent occasion in which I feel like the Spanish word actually expresses what I want to say better than the English, even if there’s technically a direct translation. So honestly, I don’t even know…

Have you dreamt in Spanish?

Yes, but my level of comprehension and speaking is exactly the same as it is in real life. I still have to think a little more when I want to say something and I still make some mistakes.

Are you now going to be one of those annoying people who randomly drops foreign words in casual conversation?

Yes. Hopefully not all the time, but yes. My sincerest apologies.

Are you excited for the upcoming year?

Except for the part about being really stressed out about classes, absolutely! Even though my year abroad in Bolivia and Spain is over, I am no less excited for what’s to come because even if it’s not in the extranjero, it will be no less of an adventure and a challenge.

What are you doing this summer?

I am the Architectural/Structural intern for Cornell Facilities Engineering! This means that I help perform and check calculations, check that designs are up to date with the most recent safety codes, inspect roofs, explore places that I wouldn’t be allowed to go otherwise, update measurements on official drawings, and write up Quick Responses (recommendations for smaller scale repairs). I LOVE my job and if I could forgo my last year of classes and just continue working there until I graduate I absolutely would.

What do you do at your job?

Within Cornell FE is the Architectural/Structural team made up of seven people (including me) and my job is to provide support for whatever projects are underway at any given moment. I draw up plans, update existing ones, help with surveying land, perform calculations (e.g. check how many bolts we need, what size, and how far apart), double check others’ calcs, write up Quick Responses (analysis summaries and repair instructions for smaller scale things), and this week I was entrusted with supervising a concrete pour in making checking the specifications of the mix, placing curing blankets correctly, observing any bumps in the road (figuratively, not literallly), and taking notes and photos of everything.

Do you like your job?

No, I LOVE it. There are always so many different projects happening at once that it’s never boring and I get to spend 30-50% of my time on site visits, inspections, etc. So it’s a 9-5 job (actually 8-4:30 but close enough) but I get to spend so much time out and about and interacting with other people, which I love. The vast majority of my coworkers are adult males, and until last week I was the only female on my team. I think throwing in a 21-year-old female college student really spices  up the mix, especially during our section meetings, because everyone tells me they love the “energy and enthusiasm” I bring. And the homemade baked goods of course 😉

How is being back at Cornell after so long?

It’s definitely a little weird, in part because I keep saying “last year” referring to sophomore year and I completely forget that there existed a year at Cornell between then and now. But it’s actually mostly due to the fact that it’s summer so there are very few people around, I’m not taking classes at odd hours of the day, I’m living in a new place (love that too), I’m not constantly stressed out, and it’s consistently warm. So it looks like Cornell, but doesn’t really feel like Cornell. Regardless, I’m really glad to be back and have the opportunity to enjoy all the great outdoorsy things Ithaca has to offer; something so often overlooked amidst the craziness of semesters and lost in the freeze of winter.

What do you plan to do once you graduate?

Normally when I try to think about this I end up with a headache.

Well, what are some options you’re considering?

Getting my masters (even though the thought of more stress school after graduation makes my stomach churn), volunteering with the Peace Corps, taking a gap year to volunteer in some other way, getting a regular job in the U.S. (not in NYC), working in Europe for a bit (I just applied for my Irish passport), or working in Chile for a bit (I have family there and am technically a citizen anyway). But I won’t be meeting with my advisor until August sooooo no one really knows right now.

Do you still want to be a missionary?

Yes. Whether I end up finding a way to do mission work (e.g. what we did in Bolivia except not necessarily a bridge and not necessarily in Bolivia) full time or if I work a normal job for most of the year and take time off to do mission work, at this point at least, it’s still what I see myself doing with my life.

I hope that’s an adequate update on my life’s shenanigans. If you’re in Ithaca let me know, I’ll be here ’til Christmas pretty much, and if you’re in Florida…welp I won’t be back until Christmas. Hasta luego!

 

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 😉

¿Qué es el tiempo?

Because I switched my phone over to Spanish back in August, that’s what my Siri speaks, and sometimes my weather app glitches so sometimes I just ask Siri ¿qué es el tiempo hoy? meaning “what’s the weather today?” One day I guess I was just being a minimalist and asked ¿qué es el tiempo? expecting a little sun or some clouds to pop up, but Siri responded “el tiempo es una ilusión.”  Um what? Well, in Spanish tiempo can mean “weather” or “time” depending entirely on the context, so since I didn’t specify “today” she interpreted it as “what is time?” Wow Siri, so deep.

But now that I think about it, Siri is completely right! I am absolutely flabbergasted that it’s already March. It wasn’t until I started planning out my semester that I realized just how little time I have left here. I know I titled my last post “halfway there” but I swear it’s practically over and I’m already beginning to feel the bittersweetness of it all coming to an end. I think this semester is going by so fast in comparison to last semester because even though I arrived in August, we didn’t start class until September, and we had a week long break in December and then another two week (Christmas) break before final exams, so everything was much more spread out. This time February went by in a flash, partially because it took me two weeks to just finalize my class schedule. March will be a blur of exams, half of April is Easter break, 2 friends are coming to visit at various times for a total of 2.5 weeks, I have a bit of time to study, and then BAM. Finals. Over.

Which brings me to summer. For which I still don’t even know which country I’ll be in. But don’t worry, when I know, you’ll know, because I’ll (hopefully) be so excited that I won’t be able to keep it to myself.

Anyway, I’m jumping ahead of myself. This semester I’m taking four classes, three in English and one in Spanish(!!!). I tried to pick a favorite but I’m not sure if I can, so I’ll pick a least favorite: Uncertainty Analysis. It’s really just a fancy name for statistics. Yes, it’s necessary because really engineering ultimately relies on statistics, but oh my goodness it’s such a confusing and mind-numbing subject. And please, someone explain to me what a gram squared is. I would love to know.

I’m also taking Coastal Engineering and Geotechnical Engineering (part II) which are two of my design electives and I find them both super interesting. Coastal is about waves, patterns, statistics, and designing coastal structures like ports, docks, etc. And it made me realize that my physics 2214 class (waves and optics) was actually somewhat useful for civil engineering purposes and worth all the pain. Emphasis on “somewhat.” Geotech is about designing tunnels, excavations, and foundations, and after learning about soil last semester, we finally got to learn about ROCKS!! So enthralling, I know! (But seriously, it’s quite cool). Not to say that the basic engineering courses aren’t practical because they’re absolutely fundamental, but it’s so cool to finally be taking classes where all of our calculations/work have more visible and tangible results.

Lastly, I’m taking Environmental Engineering, or rather Ingeniería Sanitaria. I think one of the interesting parts so far is that now I know how to describe a great many illnesses in Spanish.  We also went on a mini field trip to the waste processing facility in Meruelo, which is where all the waste from the Cantabria region goes. The facility includes screening processes, a compost area, an incinerator, and of course a landfill. It definitely cemented both everything we learned in class and the smell into my brain.

Overall, my classes require a bit more effort this semester and I no longer have the luxury of no classes on Fridays (I knew it was too good to last) but I already know it’s going to be just as much fun as last semester, if not even more so.

In support of that theory, a few weeks ago I went skiing for the first time ever!! When I pictured studying abroad in Spain, skiing on a snowy mountain never entered the picture, but I’m so glad it did. The two girls I went with also happen to be from Florida, and only one of us had ever been skiing before so it was a rough start. Lessons were really expensive so we decided to wing it and the second I got off the ski lift at the top of the bunniest of bunny slopes I fell as flat on my back as my skis allowed me. The slope monitor lifted me back up and steered me in the right direction, but then I couldn’t figure out how to stop so I had to make myself fall again to avoid colliding with the barrier (still at the top of the slope). Thankfully after that I learned rather quickly, and even though I definitely fell the most that day I mastered both green slopes and managed to only fall on the really steep part of one of the blue slopes. Everyone told me that afterwards my legs would be super sore, but the only agujetas I had were in my shoulders and upper back from lifting myself back up each time gravity got the best of me.

Speaking of things I’m really not good at, I found a Salsa/Bachata class at a little hole-in-the-wall bar offered every Wednesday night. Before the first class, the last time I had done any sort of dancing was my freshman year when I took Swing Dance I and II as my two required PE classes at Cornell (which I loved), and this reminded me how much I enjoy dancing. I’m not the greatest at it but the teacher has a great sense of humor and explains things really well and it’s a great excuse for a brain break in the middle of the week. I just wish I had found it sooner!

Another “first” that I would never have expected to happen in Spain: baking apple pie! (And how appropriate that I’m posting this on Pi Day). Anyone who knows me knows that I will never not bake and that my repertoire is pretty encompassing. Except for pie. I made a chocolate silk pie for Pi Day in middle school and I made a pumpkin pie last year from the innards of my first ever jack-o-lantern but that’s about it. Honestly, for the majority of my life I didn’t even like pie.

Anyway, my niña and I were planning on making apple crisp (easier and tastier than apple pie in my opinion), but when I walked in the door she told me she had bought some pre-made pastry and wanted to make apple pie instead. I saw no reason why not so I said let’s do it! Then she informed me that she didn’t have a recipe…so I just googled one. And it actually turned out great! It was so simple that in the end the most tedious part was just peeling, coring, and slicing a million (ok fine, more like five hundred) apples. And she decided to get creative with the leftover dough, which I thought was really cute.

Last news update, but certainly not the least, in December I decided to submit a very last-minute application for the Clark Construction Scholarship (Clark Construction is a huge Civil Engineering company in NYC) and this past month I was selected as the recipient for the 2016-17 academic year! It’s awarded annually to a “top civil engineering junior who has shown an interest in and aptitude for construction.” Honestly I wouldn’t have described myself as a “top” anything, but I’m so glad that my experiences and what I had to say made an impression on them. Shoutout to Sam, one of our professional mentors in Bolivia/the coolest and most joyful engineer I’ve ever met, for writing my letter of recommendation!

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Name: Samuel, Sprit Animal: Golden Retriever

Thank you so much for reading my blog! Quite a few people (many more than I would’ve ever imagined) have told me that they read every single post and always look forward to the next one, and I’m incredibly flattered. If my blog makes someone’s day just a little bit better then it’s served its purpose. I wish I had as much diligence writing these posts as you all do reading them 😉 I’ll do my best to post again soon. ¡Hasta luego!

 

 

 

Tears Part II: Sunrises and Pierogis

There are countless reasons I find Spanish is much more interesting than English, but I think I just discovered my favorite one. In the Spanish language there are two words that generally mean “for”: por and para. Any nonnative Spanish speaker will agree that, almost without a doubt, one of the most difficult parts of the language is learning when to use which one. After listening to Spaniards for the past four months, I’ve finally begun to get the hang of it. During my most recent Spanish class, my professor ended up explaining one case:

Para normally means something “like in order to,” e.g. “I practice in order to improve.” It also means “for,” e.g. “I made this present for you.” Por normally means “by,” “via,” or “per.” However, in certain (but less common) cases, it also means “for.” But this for isn’t just any for. It’s not that I bought these flowers for you, it’s not that I took notes in class for you when you were sick, it’s that I would drop everything for you. The way my professor put it, in this case, “for you” is closer to “because of my love for you.”

A few examples (excuse the spanglish):

“I would swim para ti“= If you were injured I’d take your place in the 100m freestyle race.

“I would swim por ti“= If you needed me, I’d cross oceans just to be there for you.

Your lifelong best friend hands you a box and says:

para ti”= I know how much you love cupcakes so I stopped by your favorite bakery this morning and got a box of them for you.

por ti”= I know your child needs a heart operation that you can’t afford but I made some sacrifices and scraped together the money to make it possible and put it inside this box for you.

That is D E E P.

As you probably already know, I spent a week in December traveling in Barcelona and Kraków. Spain has a strange calendar of fiestas, normally celebrating a random day off here and a random day off there. Dec 6th and 9th are always holidays and this year they happened to fall on a Tuesday and Thursday, so even though the rest of the university had school Monday, Wednesday, Friday, the Cornell program gave us the entire week off. I decided to take advantage and spend 10 days traveling to Barcelona, then to Krakow, and back to Santander. In my previous post I focused on my visit to Auschwitz in Poland, a very dismal but all-important part of the week, and now I’ll get to the rest of the trip!

I’ve never been entirely an extrovert or entirely an introvert, but traveling on my own for 10 days made me realize just how much of an introvert I can be, and it was almost a little scary. I thought that maybe I would get lonely after a couple of days, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though I enjoyed making a couple new friends along the way, by the end I felt almost unprepared to go back to socializing with people I already know. And yet sometimes after a weekend spent studying I’m convinced I’ll die if I don’t get some social interaction soon. So introvert of extrovert? The world may never know!

I spent the 5 days in Barcelona, which I spent exploring the Gothic quarter, attending a chocolate tasting workshop, exploring Montjuic, visiting the Monastery at Montserrat, watching the sunrise over the Sagrada Familia from Parque Güell, and, of course, wandering in and around the Sagrada Familia itself for (literally) hours on end. Along the way I befriended a fantastic Australian student named Ray who has been studying in France for a semester. We kept bumping into each other so it was a good time!

There were actually two best parts and one was definitely standing in the middle of the Sagrada Familia with the morning sun shining through the stained glass windows and setting the entire nave aglow with soft rainbows. I do like the pictures that I snapped, but I assure you it was a million times more beautiful than anything any number of pixels can create. As with sadness I rarely cry out of happiness, but this entire week proved to be the exception to those rules because I just couldn’t help tearing up from the sheer magnificence of it all.

My other favorite part was watching the sunrise over the Sagrada Familia from Parque Güell. It. Was. A M A Z I N G. See for yourself.

“The sun is the best painter.” –Antoni Gaudí

Now to Kraków. I didn’t realize until I got there that I had never been to eastern Europe before and I had never ever been in a country where I understood almost zero percent of the language. Everywhere I had ever been spoke either English or one of the romance languages, of which if you know one you can figure out enough to get by with the rest. Honestly, I felt rather uncomfortable speaking English, not because the people were rude or disdainful (in fact, quite the opposite), but because I felt like an uneducated/lazy American who has to rely on the fact that the rest of the world speaks my language in addition to their own. I know that’s not exactly the case, but it seems almost wrong to go to a different country and expect them to speak my language instead of going the extra distance to speak their own. But of course, you also couldn’t possibly learn every language of every country you travel to (you can only do so much duolingo in a month), so in that respect having a “universal language” is incredibly helpful. On the bright side, I picked up on the pronunciation pretty quickly so if I was asking for directions I could at least pronounce the place names correctly enough, and by the end I was able to ask for things like food and train tickets in Polish (until the other person would ask me a question beyond the basics and I would understand absolutely nothing).

As traitorous as I feel for saying this, apart from the Sagrada Familia I liked Poland much more than Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’s because it was a bit less touristy, or because it felt a bit more wintery with the freezing weather and Christmas markets, or maybe I’m just so accustomed to Spain now that Barcelona wasn’t quite as exciting. Regardless, as soon as I got there I knew that three days wasn’t going to be enough. There’s still an entire universe of history, Catholicism, St. Pope John Paul II, a monastery with a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary, and so much more that I didn’t have time to even begin exploring. Not to mention that I can no longer imagine my life without pierogis.

I went on a tour around the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, spent some time at Auschwitz, took the miner’s route at the Wieliczka Salt Mine (way more fun than the tourist route), and did some Christmas shopping at the Christmas market in the main square (while eating lots of pierogis), just to name a few things. I also found an adorable little bookshop/café where you can get coffee/dessert, pick out a book, and sit in one of their many rooms, either at a table or in a comfy armchair, and just read for hours. I only let myself go a couple of hours before closing time so that I couldn’t spend an entire day there.

 

As I mentioned briefly before, the people of Kraków were so kind overall. When someone started speaking to me in Polish and I had to respond in English, they switched languages automatically and continued the conversation with exactly the same friendliness as they had started. When I tried to speak Polish and crashed and burned halfway through the second sentence, the person would just give a friendly laugh, very much amused by and appreciative of my attempt, and then kindly ask if I’d prefer English. Even when I spoke English and the other person didn’t, they were incredibly understanding and patient and we would both use what little we knew of each other’s language to figure things out. In any situation, they were all so welcoming and kind. I absolutely cannot wait to (hopefully) return one day.

Despite the fact that I was having the time of my life, the ten days didn’t rush by like I though they would. They seemed to pass almost a little slower than usual; so much so that by the time I got home, Barcelona felt like forever ago. I’m not complaining though, it was a much needed break after a month of exams and it gave me a little more energy to push through the last couple of weeks before Christmas break. It was probably the longest but also best week of the semester (so far) 😉

The Smaller Joys

Since this didn’t make it into my last post, please enjoy this picture of my 12-year-old mini-me and I attempting to take a picture with both of our spirit/second favorite animal (an otter!) in Lisbon because coincidentally their family was vacationing there the exact weekend I was there so we went to the Oceanarium together! Definitely one of the best parts of the trip. She’s my favorite ❤

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Anywayyyyy, November has gone by so fast that Thanksgiving just snuck up on me this year. I’m a little bummed because I did’t get a break, but I’m also super thankful that I get to live in a different country for an entire year. Still sounds a bit crazy when I say it.

So far it’s been a month of exams, so I made the conscious decision to put all my international adventures on hold and focus on just being a student. Our prelim “season” started, but as all Cornellians know, “season” refers to everything except the first few weeks of any semester. Once it starts, it never ends. Even still, things here are much less stressful so I’m also incredibly thankful for that. Some exams went really well and others…not so well. On the bright side, while all this will still show up on my transcript at least it won’t get factored into my GPA, which is good, right?? Welp, only time will tell…

It’s also been a month of small but really exciting milestones! Despite having had very little time to run due to multiple exams, I PR’d (broke my personal record) on Saturday during Santander’s annual night race (which was so cool with all the lights!). I beat my time, which I set all the way back in high school when I was super in shape during cross country season, by 3:21. Yup, three minutes and twenty-one seconds. For running, that’s a lot. And it also beats my last race that I ran a few weeks ago by 4:05. Where were these legs back when I actually had a team counting on me!?!? That’s what I wanna know!! Regardless, I’m ecstatic.

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I got a nifty headlamp and they even knew my graduation year!

Another small but really important milestone? My niño’s (spanish children’s) bunny finally likes me! It only took him two months.

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A bunch of international students took a day trip to Parque Cabarceno, which technically has “zoológico” (zoo) in its name, but it’s not really a zoo. It’s more like a nature park with a couple fences here and there. It was BEAUTIFUL. I got to get so close to so many different types of animals (sea lions, elephants, and an ostrich, to name my favorites) and at the highest point in the park you look south and see the Picos de Europa (Cantabria’s mountain range), and if you look North you see Santander and its bay (seen in this post’s cover photo). Absolutely breathtaking.

Aaaaand, since Spain doesn’t have Thanksgiving, I invited a bunch of American and Spanish (and even one Italian) friends over to my flat for “Thanksgiving dinner” complete with chicken (turkey isn’t very common…), stuffing, sweet potato, roasted veggies, ham, mashed potato, apple crisp, empanadas, and, of course, Spanish tortillas. My mom even mailed me cute Fall themed paper plates and napkins, a plastic tablecloth, and cute sparkly maple leaf decorations! It wasn’t anything huge or crazy, but I just loved getting to introduce my friends to a beautiful holiday with lots of friendship and food ❤

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SPANISH UPDATE: I had a dream with Spanish in it!! Not to say that the entire dream was in Spanish but I started talking to some people in Spanish AND used the subjective. Twice. Correctly. So that’s definitely a good sign if even subconscious Meriel can get it right without thinking too much. I’ve also started to outsmart google translate. Sometimes when I’m writing an essay I’ll type in the English to double check my Spanish structure but the translation comes out weird, so instead I reverse it, put in the Spanish, and the English comes out just how I intended it to. Perfecto. Even in Spanish class I’m starting to realize that even when I haven’t previously learned the official grammar rules, oftentimes I can tell what sounds right and what doesn’t, even though I can’t explain why. Knowing that it’s only November makes me so excited to see how far I can get with my language skills by the time summer rolls around!

Some self-reflection:

I have always hated writing. So much. That’s not to say that I’m bad at it though: I did well in AP Lang and AP Lit, I gave a speech at my graduation, and apparently people actually read this blog so I can’t be that bad (right?). However, for some reason writing has always been my least favorite way of expressing myself. Maybe it’s because it takes too much patience to write out words with a paper and pen, or perhaps because a lot of times drawing or music can express so much more without uttering a single syllable. Regardless, even if it’s about something I’m interested in (like this blog!), it’s always been a chore for me.

If you recall from one of my first posts, in my Spanish class (I’m taking two, this is the one through the Cornell program) there are only three of us and we’re at three completely different levels of fluency, so to add a little more challenge and practice for myself, I opt to write an essay each week and my teacher corrects all the grammar, punctuation (it’s actually a bit different in Spanish…weird), and things that just don’t come out quite right. The first week my teacher told me to compare and contrast two regions of Spain. B o r i n g. The next week he just told me to write something in the past tense. Each week he gave me more and more freedom over what to write about so one week when I was a bit homesick I wrote about baking chocolate chip cookies with my mom when I was younger, and when I missed a friend I wrote about seeing them again when I get back.

Ever since then I’ve started to enjoy writing and getting all my feelings on paper, but for some reason I only enjoy writing in Spanish. Maybe it’s because it’s something new and different, maybe it’s because I’m obsessed with learning Spanish, or maybe it’s because things just sound prettier in Spanish, who knows! Granted, I will probably never sound quite as eloquent in Spanish as in English, but I’m mostly just happily surprised that I found at least some form of writing that I don’t absolutely dread. It’s only been a couple months and already I’ve found myself growing in ways I didn’t think were even possible, and that’s just a small example.

Overall, I feel like everything is starting to come together more and more each week, so gradually that I don’t even notice it until I look all the way back to August. Whether I’m holed up in my room doing homework, making pizza with my favorite 12-year-old, or reading my Spanish Harry Potter books, I’m so happy to be here. God is good.

Donostia San Sebastián

Fun fact: There is a region of Spain called the Basque region (not to be confused with País Vasco/Basque Country, a political region of Spain that is part of the Basque region). This includes País Vasco, La Rioja, and Navarra. As well as Castellano (Spanish), they also speak Euskara which is not at all related to Spanish and has unknown roots. San Sebastián is located in Basque Country (next to Cantabria). The city is so close to France that it has shifted between occupations many times throughout history and honestly couldn’t care less which country it’s part of. Thus, the people have a lot of regional pride and there’s a lot of talk of gaining independence from Spain.

More fun facts: Hello = Kaixo (KI-sho),  Goodbye = Agur (ah-GOOR),  Thank you = eskerrik asko (es-KEHR-ik AH-sko)

Anyway, I’ve survived our first sort-of real week of real classes! If that makes any sense. Classes didn’t start until Tuesday because on Monday we spent 2+ hours waiting in the Oficina de Extranjeros, they called our number, and then told us to go take a different number and sit back down. #bureaucracy

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This semester I’m taking Geotechnical Engineering, Engineering Computation, Fluid Mechanics, and (of course) Spanish. Fluids is pretty cool, it’s about (yup you guessed it) fluids and how they move. Computation isn’t difficult (yet) but it’s incredibly boring because all we’ve done so far is some calculus BC review, Taylor/Maclaurin series, and a couple matlab codes.

Surprisingly, I’ve found Geotech to be the most interesting of the three. We’ve learned about the different types of soil and how to classify them, foundations, and basic calculations. I think the coolest part is that in Bolivia we worked with two different types of soil (shale and silt) when excavating and constructing the anchors and foundations so it’s much easier to understand and remember the concepts the professor is trying to convey because I’ve had some hands-on experience.

Spanish class, on the other hand, is a completely different story. There are only four students (the three of us from Cornell and Pauline, from Sweden) and we’re at four completely different levels of fluency. The professor agrees that it’s a terrible system but there’s nothing anyone can do about it unfortunately. The first thing he had us do today was come up to the board and write a paragraph about Superman, and from that moment I knew I was going to enjoy the class. We were allowed to write anything we wanted about Superman so that he could get an idea of where we each are at, and then he corrected each one. At this point that’s really all I want: to talk and write and have someone correct all my little mistakes. Unfortunately the class is only three hours a week, but honestly I could take it every single day.

For some strange reason the university closes completely on the first Friday of school, so we didn’t have any classes. A few of us decided to take advantage and we went to San Sebastián for two days. The first day we did a free walking tour with a very small group called Go Local and they were fantastic. We also attempted to go to the museum on the top of a hill by the beach but there were so many windy paths that we couldn’t find it, but we were not at all disappointed because the weather was beautiful and the views even more so.

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The second day we went to the beach and then rented a couple of stand up paddle boards. I’d been paddle boarding before but never standing up and never in the ocean, so that was definitely my favorite part of the weekend (I don’t have any pictures though because if I did my phone would be at the bottom of the ocean, sorry!).

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The tree lined walkway with the clock tower reminded me so much of Ho Plaza!

Last week a big group of international students went out for drinks and ironically I met a really nice girl who goes to the university but is actually from Santander. Her name is Eli (pronounced like Ellie) and on Sunday we went to see part of an art exhibition. It was a colorful labyrinth with mind puzzles throughout to figure out which way to turn. Afterwards she showed me where to find the best view of the bay (even though it was raining) and a little café called Gallofa (which doesn’t translate to anything). It had desserts, coffee, hot chocolate, and sandwiches, which may not sound very interesting but it really is because everything is just very different than what you would find in an American café, despite the names being the same.

We ordered Colacao (basically what we think of as hot chocolate, even though Spanish hot chocolate means something different) and tostada especial Ibérica, which translates to “Iberian toasted specialty” but we had no idea what it was when we ordered it. Turns out it’s toast, crushed tomato, Iberian ham, and a little bit of salt and olive oil. We ended up talking for hours and I’m pretty sure that was the longest continuous period of time in my entire life that I’ve spoken Spanish, so I was really happy.

P.S. I still don’t have wifi in my apartment so I apologize if it seems like I’ve disappeared off the face of the earth. If you want to reach me, for any reason at all, just send me a message via email, facebook messenger, groupme, or whatsapp (or all of the above if you’re really feeling it) and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible! Promise 🙂

Spanish–>Gaelic–>French??

This week was the last bit of play before all the work sets in.

Last Monday I took my final exams for the intensive Spanish course that consisted of a written grammar test and an oral presentation. I thought the grammar portion was quite easy and I got one of the highest scores in the class so I was really happy with that. The writing class was graded off of the short essays we had written throughout the two weeks and I scored about average compared to the rest of the class which is good (but I have no idea how he graded them because all the 9’s, 9.5’s, and 10’s had the same amount of red correction marks…??)*. I didn’t do as well on the oral presentation as I’d hoped because my presentation was on google drive and unfortunately the internet picked that exact day to stop working so I had to use a really last minute makeshift presentation so I was kind of panicky because I felt so unprepared by the time it was my turn. But honestly if that was my worst, then I think my worst is pretty good.

I spent Wednesday to Sunday at my granddad’s house in Dublin, Ireland because my mom and my three uncles were all in town (sort of like a mini family reunion). I missed the international student orientation trip because of this, but apparently all I missed was pouring rain and a few places we’d already seen in the month we’ve been here. Bummer.

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Thursday my mom and I took a train to Belfast to visit the “Titanic Experience.” It’s not a museum, but more like a very detailed and interactive story, and being a huge history geek I absolutely loved it. I think we spent a good 3.5-4 hours there.

Friday we went to Newgrange, an ancient burial tomb that’s older than Stonehenge and the pyramids (which by the way IS THE COOLEST PLACE EVER). It’s lined with massive boulders (somehow transported hundreds of miles before the wheel existed), carved with various designs, built with different types of stones collected from all over Ireland, it has a vaulted roof made of large flat rocks and no mortar but it hasn’t leaked a drop of water since the day it was built, and there’s an opening above the entrance that is purposely lined up with the horizon so that on the winter solstice the rising sun illuminates the entire cavern. Maybe that’s just my civil engineer/architect/history geek fangirling over a mound of rocks and earth BUT SERIOUSLY IS THAT COOL OR WHAT.

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Anyway. The rest of the weekend I spent just hanging out with family and hearing so many stories that I never knew about my mom and her brothers.

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My three uncles, mom, granddad, and me

And, because I’m absolutely incapable of going anywhere without learning a new recipe, I tried Rhubarb for the first time and learned how to stew some fresh stems from my granddad’s back yard. Fun fact: Rhubarb leaves are poisonous, you can only eat the stems!

P.S. Special thanks to Duolingo, the language-learning app that says I’m not fluent because I finished all the Spanish lessons but I am still definitely not fluent. How helpful. (But at least is wasn’t unhelpful…)

P.P.S. Now I really just use Duolingo for French since I want to visit but they speak neither English nor Spanish, so this will be interesting.

*Spain grades on a scale of 1-10 with 5 being a pass.

Adulting and Adventuring (in that order)

So much has happened in the past week that most of this feels like it happened a month ago. I did lots of adulting: I found a flat, got a job, moved in/out, and attempted to get a residency card, and I thought I got a concussion (I didn’t, don’t worry), tried lots of new Spanish food, finished Spanish class (minus the exam), and explored Bilbao. I. Am. Tired. Just a little.

I said goodbye to my wonderful host mom on Sunday when she drove me and my suitcase to my flat right across from the university. I’ll be living with two Spanish girls who both seem very friendly, but they won’t be moving in until right before classes start (around the 19th) so I’ll be on my own for a little while.

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The view from my window; the big brick building is where I had Spanish classes

The same day I found the flat I got a job teaching English twice a week to two siblings, a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. They’re both quite clever and attend a bilingual school however and started learning very young so they speak better English that I speak Spanish so there’s not too much actual teaching involved. We talk, play with their pet rabbit, and play games, and the very first day they ask me really intense questions like who am I going to vote for. Goooood question.

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Playing Jenga (our way)

Priya and I had to skip class to go get our residency card, which we’re supposed to get within the first 30 days of arrival but we couldn’t go until this week because the university wouldn’t give us our matricula paper. When we got to the Foreigners Office all they did was give us a paper to go pay the fee at the bank and told us to come back in two weeks. Bureaucracy. Is. The worst.

Then one day I hit my head on an open window (on the corner of the little door thingy) really really hard. It hurt a lot and it was bleeding a little but I felt pretty ok other than the throbbing so I put some ice on it for a while. Then the next day in class, at first very gradually and then very suddenly I felt really dizzy, feverish, and slightly nauseous. I spent the rest of class trying to pretend like I was quietly listening to the conversation when really I was just trying not to pass out. After class one of the people in the office took me to the campus medic and he told me that I had really low blood pressure. He didn’t say why or how to fix it, just that I shouldn’t eat anything that would upset my stomach. Super helpful. Welp. Fingers crossed it was just a one-time thing.

Saturday Priya and I took a bus (3 hours round trip) to Bilbao for the day. We went to the Guggenheim museum, which is supposedly very sophisticated and famous, but honestly most of the artwork looked like it was made my preschoolers. It was a bit of a let down, but there were some highlights. My favorite part of the day was kayaking on the river that runs through the city!

I’ve also had many opportunies to try new Spanish (and some not-so-Spanish) foods

The most characteristically Spanish food I’ve had is seafood paella, but I was really disappointed that it turned out to be very bland and even worse, imagine how unnerving it is to be digging through some rice and suddenly out pops these:

All in all, it’s been a crazy awesome week. This week I’ll be heading to Ireland for a few days to visit family that I haven’t seen in many years so I’m super excited!

Como Una Lechuga

Phrase of the day: estar fresca como una lechuga = (literally) to be fresh as lettuce, (actually) to be perfectly comfortable, not too hot or cold or tired or sad or anything, but just right. (I really want to start using that in English)

I’ve always had a special admiration for transfer students because they were brave enough to essentially redo their freshman year of college, an overwhelming and sometimes intimidating time. Don’t get me wrong, freshman year was fantastic, but it’s also quite nice once you can navigate most places on your own, you know all the tips and tricks to make life just a little easier, and you have friends all over campus so you almost never feel lonely. So every time the topic of transfer students came up I’ve always thought “wow, I would never. I could never.” And yet here I am. The realization that I’m essentially just transferring schools temporarily didn’t even occur to me until I was on the plane.

Imagine freshman year with all its newness, confusion, and getting lost. Then add some jet lag, weird daily schedules (I never though I would hear someone say “6 in the afternoon”), new cultural customs and sayings (I’m not allowed to say “ok”, it comes across as snobby), new dress codes (it’s frowned upon to wear shorts to class but it’s totally acceptable for women to be topless at the beach???), I’m completely on my own for finding housing (for after my two weeks with my host family), aaaaaaaand let’s go the language setting and change it to Spanish. No subtitles. Just for funsies.

It’s been a long, crazy week, but in a good way.

For starters, my host mom was thoroughly shocked when I could speak to her in Spanish from the moment I arrived. She was so excited that she sat me down and asked me a million questions about where I was from, why I’m here, and what I’ll be doing. Apparently all of the girls she’s hosted in the past have spoken very little to no Spanish. The thought of traveling by myself to a place where I don’t understand a single word is absolutely terrifying.

I’ve found that my comprehension of Spanish really just depends on the day, or the hour really. It can go from asking for directions in the street and understanding absolutely everything (while repeatedly assuring that I do in fact understand) to someone talking at me really fast and my brain just freaks out and refuses process anything. However, the most irritating part of the language barrier is actually when people realize that I’m not a native Spanish speaker and then start speaking to me in English because they assume I would prefer it. Although I appreciate the gesture, I cannot even begin to explain how frustrating this is. Even worse is when the person doesn’t actually know much english and ends up speaking in very broken sentences with a really thick accent. At that point it’s infinitely easier to understand them if they simply speak Spanish, but I’m too afraid it would be rude to ask them to stop.

I started my intensive two week Spanish class (more detail on that later) and the hours are long but sometimes it’s really enjoyable. We’ve discussed everything from global politics to swear words to Spanish culture to alcohol to who’s got a girlfriend right now. It’s been quite interesting…

Anyway, now I have a phone, ID card, bank account, and (almost) an apartment so I feel more like a real person and less of a tourist (although I must admit I did get a bit sunburned yesterday). I absolutely love it here.

I’m going to try to post once a week (granted this is already three days late) so keep an eye out!