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 lie.

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 Maiorem Dei Gloriam

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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 😉

Letting Go: Lisbon

I have both good news and bad news. The bad news is that I’m kinda behind on this blog because November=exams. The good news is that I had my first exam this week in Geotechnical Engineering and I was the first to finish so hopefully that means I knew my stuff! If that happened at Cornell I would be scared out of my mind because it could only mean that I understood absolutely nothing and gave up.

Anyway, we had somewhat of a Fall break because (with Spain being nominally Catholic) All Saint’s Day (Nov 1st) is a national holiday and we had Halloween off and I don’t have classes on Fridays so000 5 day weekend!! The logical thing to do? Fulfill the “abroad” requirement of study abroad and go to Portugal! Did I bring homework/study material for my upcoming exams? Mmmmmmmaybe…

I must say Lisbon was definitely the most…interesting…trip thus far as well as the most exhausting. Seriously, I took a nap the day after I got home. Anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t nap unless I’m either really sick or I pulled an all nighter (of which neither even applied in this case).

In my last post I said that I’ve come to realize how much I still have to learn (about culture, life, and pretty much everything) and this weekend definitely confirmed that. I say this because there was many a moment when it would’ve been so easy to give up and turn back, get frustrated, start complaining, or turn into a decidedly negative nelly for the rest of the day, but instead I did my very best to exercise my positivity muscles.

I could recount all of the missed trains, unplanned and unnecessary mountain hiking, hours spent trying to find a place to eat that wasn’t closed or full, the many times we arrived somewhere only to find that it was closed on that one particular day of the week, and the brief period of panic that ensued when we couldn’t find a taxi to get to the airport at 5:30 AM and were convinced we would have to buy another plane ticket home…but what good would come of that?

Looking back, my favorite part was not when we made the train on time, or finally found a delicious vegan buffet after much hungry wandering, or found a great Fado* restaurant because we triple checked to see if it was in fact open (and actually had Fado). Honestly, my favorite moments include lying on a stone bench with Priya in a plaza at 11:30 at night because we were too tired to walk home and discovering the relation between Fado and crackers, eating an entire fish that frankly was the most delicious fish I have ever eaten in my entire life (even the head, tail, and bones didn’t faze me at all), and moseying around the smaller and more intimate city streets with Michaela while pondering stress, coffee, being abroad, future plans, and the best ways to be a traveler instead of a tourist. And I realize now that many of these things wouldn’t have even happened had our plans not gone awry.

*Fado is a genre of traditional Portuguese music with two types of guitars and vocals. Our tour guide said that most people think it sounds sad but that it’s not meant to be sad. It’s meant to emulate the feeling of when you remember something very good but you simultaneously realize that you will never have the exact same experience again. In my opinion it’s more of a mix between nostalgia and bittersweetness, and can be sad I suppose, but remembering happy things isn’t mean to be sad. The Fado crackers story: I was telling Priya that one time I came home from school really really hungry for some reason and I ate some crackers that I’d had many times before, but for whatever reason in that moment I had never eaten more delicious crackers than those. Of course they never tasted that good ever again, but I still have the memory. It’s definitely a slightly sillier example, but that’s the idea of Fado.

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Plus, I learned some very important lessons while I was there:

  • Portugal is not Spain. Not even close. They may share the same peninsula but they’re also huge rivals. Things are on a different schedule (what I would call the normal non-Spanish timetable) and businesses close one day a week but instead of all closing on the same day one will be closed only on Mondays, another only Tuesdays, another Sundays, etc. It seemed like the majority of people (even random people on the streets) speak English.
  • Don’t try to speak Spanish to the locals. It’s normally received as an insult. If you start speaking English you’re saying “I don’t speak Portuguese but English is becoming a universal language (especially in Europe) so there’s a fair chance you also speak English,” but if you start in Spanish you’re saying “I don’t speak Portuguese because I chose Spanish as my second language instead because it’s globally superior and more useful. Plus it sounds basically the same as Portuguese, right?”
  • The most fun thing to do in any city is try to pretend to be a local. I’m not saying to ditch the tourist label entirely; you will get lost and need directions, and definitely take lots of pictures to help you remember how much fun you had and to share with others, but know that the best parts will probably not be the monuments that cost an arm and a leg to get into. I love wandering all the little streets, especially in the older parts of places, finding hole-in-the-wall cafés, local family-operated shops, and the hidden but beautiful sights.

And most importantly…

  • COFFEE IS  APPARENTLY NOT SUPPOSED TO BE BITTER AND GROSS. AMERICANS ARE JUST DOING IT WRONG. Michaela and I found an adorable coffee shop and I got a latté. Normally I would have to add tons of milk and sugar to coffee to make it even bearable (which is part of the reason I hardly ever drink it) but this was just espresso, milk, and an adorable design in the foam on top and it was absolutely perfect. No sugar necessary and no burning hot, bitter, bean-ey, watery dirt. I was amazed and Mich informed me that this is what coffee is supposed to taste like. Teach me your ways Europe.

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend away from school, exploring a new culture, and learning to let all the negative thoughts go. Things will always end up being ok. Maybe not in the way you’d expect or want, but they will be ok. I’m absolutely positive.

 

 

So Much More to Learn

I think I might be getting the hang of things here. Emphasis on “might.” Every time I start to think that I finally have life here figured out…I realize how much I really don’t.

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When I think I finally have all my ducks in a row but then I look in the mirror… life man.

But that’s ok! I’m here to learn about more than just engineering, right?

Speaking of being educated, I’d like to take a moment to say that if you’re eligible to do so, please do this country a favor, educate yourself, register, and

GO VOTE!!

Please. Do it.

So I voted this morning! Yup, I went through all the over-seas shenanigans so I could have a say in the currently slightly dismal-looking future of America. At the very least I can stop tearing my conscience apart trying to decide the lesser of two evils because as much as I don’t like any of the options, what’s done is done.

On a happier note, so far one of my favorite things about living in Santander is actually my job. I teach English to kids from two different families: twice a week with a sister(12) and a brother(14), and once a week with two brothers(11, 4) and a sister(1). I love all of them simply because I love kids in general, but I especially love getting to see the older kids twice a week because it’s a bit less like babysitting in English and more like goofing off, discussing crazy American politics, and baking real American desserts in English.

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Notice the brownie batter moustache

Honestly I probably shouldn’t have started with the brownies because now all they want to make is brownies…

Lately I’ve been expanding my repertoire (another French word used in English Mich!) of recipes from other countries and so far I have Irish Brown Bread and Quesada.

The bread is a recipe from my Nana that we found in my Granddad’s kitchen when I visited last month. It’s a simple but dense bread (more like cake I suppose, except it’s not sweet) made with whole wheat flour. Apart from being a bit singed and hard as a rock on top, the rest of it came out pretty well for being my first time making it. It goes great with jam or even just a little bit of butter.

Even though it’s much more common to just buy it from a grocery store, my host mom made some fantastic home-made Quesada so before I moved out I made sure to ask her for the recipe. It’s also a very simple recipe and the texture is somewhere between cheesecake and flan, but it has lemon zest and cinnamon so it has a very unique flavor that I don’t know how to describe. With the amount of sugar and butter that goes into it I think it’s definitely a dessert but my host mom always served it with breakfast so who knows, really.

Those who know me know that I was on the cross-country team in high school, and those who really know me know that I was never a very fast runner (but of course I did it because I loved it). I never really stopped running but the business of Cornell definitely made it hard to run more than a couple of miles each week so it was really exciting to run in my first official race in about 3 years. And when I finished the 5K with a time only 24 seconds behind my official high school PR, I was pretty ecstatic! (If you’re not familiar with running times, 24 seconds is kind of a lot, but when you’re talking about my PR, my best time ever, and the fact that I was still feeling a bit under the weather, that’s really not bad at all considering I haven’t been running nearly as intensely as I did during XC season).

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The on-campus international student organization planned a kayaking day-trip on the Río Sella in the region of Asturias (next to Cantabria). My partner, a really sweet medical student from France, and I kayaked 16km through the beautiful mountains and greenery. Since it’s the end of summer, some parts of the river were very shallow so we had to get out and drag our kayak through freezing cold water that was only a few inches deep several times, but overall it was fantastic and definitely worth it.

My most recent international endeavor was going to paris for a weekend and meeting up with Michaela, another fellow Cornellian studying in France this semester. We definitely related on all subjects study abroad: making friends, traveling, new languages, and new norms. (Props to Mich for surviving the stereotype of rude French people that is surprisingly accurate more often than you would think)

And instead of a hostel we stayed with a childhood friend of my mom’s originally from Ireland but who now lives within 10 min walking distance of the Eiffel tower (thank you again Helen, you are amazing!). I met her and her family for the first time when I was in Ireland visiting my granddad when I was 7. I remember playing with her three kids, her daughter being only a few weeks older than me, and I hadn’t seen them since then so after 13 years it was so lovely to spend some time with them.

In terms of touristy things we saw:

  • the Eiffel Tower, which was super interesting from a civil engineering perspective
  • the Louvre, which was thoroughly overwhelming due to the sheer number of paintings per square foot but my inner artist greatly enjoyed it
  • the Arc de Triomphe, of which my favorite part was actually getting to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night!
  • Versailles, my inner AP Euro history geek’s dream

 

The less touristy things included:

  • a very French family dinner the first night, complete with the entreé (more French Mich!!), cheese, salad, and dessert, in that order
  • a visit to Shakespeare and Co., a beautiful bookstore that I could probably live in
  • Germaine and other cute little streets with cafés, secondhand bookstores, knick knack places, chocolate shops, boulangeries, and patisseries (in one chocolate shop I tried chocolate covered spices! It was super cool but unfortunately my tastebuds aren’t that refined)
  • Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame and brunch at Holybelly! (Ok Holybelly is kind of touristy because it’s English-speaking and very American, but it was fantastic all the same)

After all this time adapting to Spain, heading to France and getting hit with a whole other language, culture, and set of expectations has reminded me that studying abroad is about so much more than just studying in school.

I would absolutely go back in a heartbeat ❤

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.

“Vosotros” Crash Course

I survived my first full week of (Spanish) class! Or as I like to call it, (being a stereotypical U.S. student who was never taught anything about this particular conjugation whatsoever) Crash Course in Vosotros.

The first day we took a placement test (multiple choice plus short answer). They use the Cambridge system so A=beginner, B=intermediate, and C=advanced, with 2 levels for each. I ended up in level B1 which means you know enough to have a real conversation in Spanish (aside from “hi how are you it’s sunny today”) but you’re definitely not fluent yet. However, all the international students were placed into either A1, A2, or B1 so at least I know I’m on the same level as all the others. In my class there are 9 of us from England, Italy, Germany, France, and Rhode Island (of all places haha).

Class is broken up into three parts: grammar, oral, and writing. Grammar is 9:15-11:15 and then we have a pausa where we all go downstairs to the café and just hang out for a bit. 11:45-12:50 is more grammar with Marián, a very sprightly, kind, and expressive lady who is very interested in our personal lives (in a good way) and likes talking about our current relationships (or lack thereof), living situations, and what we did over the weekend. 12:50-1:50 is the oral class with Rubén, during which we mostly talk about relevant topics like Spanish culture and fiestas, how the medical system works, etc. Both grammar and oral are less like lectures and more like conversations that just go wherever they end up going, which makes the two hour periods a little more bearable. Normally 14:00-16:00 (Spain normally uses military time) is siesta but our teacher asked if we could have writing class 15:00-17:00 instead of 16:00-18:00, which we were all fine with. We mostly watch cortomentrajes, or short films, and then write either narratives, descriptions, points of view, etc.

Ultimately, the days are long, pretty much like high school again except with much less homework, but I think I’m definitely improving. Exhibit A: I was telling my host mom that the other students and I might go to a tapas bar later and when I said tal vez iremos she freaked out. I thought I had said something really wrong but she looked at me very seriously and said that you would never hear a non-native speaker use that phrase or that type of grammar unless they really spoke Spanish. Soooo I’m gonna take that as a sign of improvement.

Aside from class, there’s also been a lot of down time which has been quite relaxing (a word I don’t think I’ve ever used to describe Cornell). Tuesday was a “fiesta” which is really just a holiday on which no one works but there aren’t any special celebrations. It was the feast day of the patron saints of Santander, Saint Celedonius and Saint Emeterius (which is supposedly where the name came from, according to wikipedia: Santemter, Santenter, Santander). Monday night there were fireworks on the beach and my host mom warned me that they would be smaller than in the U.S. and I told her I didn’t mind at all because any fireworks are super cool to watch, and it ended up being one of the largest and LOUDEST firework show I’ve ever seen!

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Sorry this is a lame picture, it was at the beginning and it’s hard to capture fireworks, but I assure you they were fantastic

After the fireworks we went to an international festival happening nearby with live music, rides, and tons of stalls selling food, drinks, and other things from so many different countries (ironically the U.S. stall was selling Mexican food…???). I had a Spanish sangria, my second ever legal drink (the first was in Canada) and it was fantastic. All the international students were baffled when I told them I’m still not allowed to drink in the U.S.

On Tuesday it was really sunny so a bunch of the Erasmus kids (international students) took a ferry across the Bay of Biscay to a beach called Somo. We discovered that they have surfing, wind surfing, and kite surfing lessons there, so those are definitely going on my list of fun things to do (assuming I can get over the freezing cold water).

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Friday night was interesting. We went to a tapas (normally called pinchos here) bar and a discoteca and I definitely learned a couple things.

  1. Don’t go a Spanish “club”

A discoteca is what we would call a club (e.g. music, dancing, maybe a bar). A U.S. club is NOT the same thing as a Spanish club. DON’T GO TO A SPANISH CLUB.

  1. How to talk to Spanish boys at a discoteca: Don’t

At one point during the night Priya (also from Cornell) and I broke off from the group because the discoteca we were in was too crowded and everyone was much older, so we found a different place. Within two minutes of getting there a slightly (possibly very) intoxicated Spanish student, with his posse snickering behind him, came up to us, looked at me, and asked a question. It was quite noisy and he wasn’t speaking very clearly so I couldn’t understand anything. I explained that we spoke English and understanding Spanish was sometimes difficult so he proceeded to repeat the same question over and over. By the third or fourth time I realized he was saying. I tried to continue pretending that I didn’t understand but he was pretty determined and just kept going so eventually I gave up:

Drunk Spanish Student: ¿Un beso? (a kiss?)

Me: No.

DSS: *surprised* ¿Por qué? (why?)

Me: Porque (because)

DSS: ¿Por queeeeeeé?

Me: PORQUE NO QUIERO

DSS: …Por qué?

*Priya shoves between us and steers us far far away from him*

Thank God for Priya.

Anyway. Pictures!!!

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Also the fro yo, courtesy of llao llao (pronounced yao yao), is fantastic! Special thanks goes to the Rhode Island kids who discovered it 🙂   (idk why you get two spoons, Spain is a little weird sometimes)

 

 

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!

FAQ

As you may already know, this next year is going to be my craziest yet. A crazy year meaning a “sometimes-I-question-why-I’m-doing-all-this-but-it’s-going-to-be-amazing” year. So naturally, this past semester when people started asking about my plans for the summer/next year I was subsequently bombarded with a multitude of questions, to some of which I didn’t even know the answers yet. Although it’s been a few months and after answering the same questions, I think I’ve finally got it all down pat. So if you haven’t already heard my whole spiel, brace yourself, the suspense is over!

Q: Meriel, what are you doing this summer?

(short) A: I will be spending 8 weeks in Calcha, Bolivia with my project team, Engineers Without Borders, constructing the suspended footbridge that we have been working on for the past two years.

(long) A: http://ewb.engineering.cornell.edu/

Q: Wow that’s super awesome! Will you be able to keep in touch with people while you’re there?

A: Probably not. I won’t be bringing my phone with me and even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to use it in Calcha anyway. The plan is to drive to Potosí, one of the larger cities that has electricity/wifi, about once every two weeks so I may or may not be able to check my email. And even if I do have the opportunity…I may just not check :))))  I personally love spending time “off the grid” and away from the overwhelming connectivity.

Q: Fair enough. When do you leave?

A: I leave on June 10th and arrive back in the U.S. on August 8th.

Q: So you’ll be there for essentially the whole summer?

A: Yes.

Q: Ok, so I’ll see you when you get back, right?

(Melbourne) A: I’ll be in Melbourne from the 8th until somewhere around the 20th so if that’s where you’re at within that timeframe, then definitely!

(Cornell) A: Unfortunately no because around the 20th I’m hopping on a plane to study abroad in Santander (northern coast of Spain) at the University of Cantabria.

Q: So you’re not going back to Cornell before going to Spain?

A: No.

Q: Ah ok. So you’re studying abroad for a semester?

A: Welllllll it’s actually for a year.

Q: THAT’S SUCH A LONG TIME!!! [not really a question but every person has kept me well informed]

A: Yes. Yes it is.

Q: But you’re coming home for Thanksgiving/Christmas*/Easter/Slope Day, right?

A: No, unfortunately. They don’t have Thanksgiving over there, the Christmas break isn’t long enough and I’ll have to study for finals anyway (because they’re after the break, which is super annoying). I honestly don’t  know if we have any sort of break in the spring. Exams aren’t even until the first week of June so there’s no chance of stopping by Cornell on the way home, and I hope to get an internship there over the summer anyway. Regardless, it’s too expensive to fly home for such short amounts of time, and I’ll only be there once so I want to make the most of it.

*I’ll be spending Christmas with my Aunt and Uncle who live in England though, so don’t worry, I’ll still be with family!

Q: Wow, that’s a long time. But you’re going to have so much fun. [see previous comment]

A: [I’m never really sure what to say to this because it feels more like a command than a statement… Yes I hope it will be fun, but I can’t imagine every waking moment getting lost in a foreign country, struggling through a foreign language, away from my family and friends, not knowing anyone, and staying on top of difficult classes will be sunshine, daisies, and rainbows. Goodness, I wish!]

Q: How is the visa process going?

A: As of May 27th I have my visa!! (To the people who asked me between January and May I told them it was the bane of my entire existence. But that’s another story entirely).

Q: You can travel all over Europe! Where are you going to go?

A: Actually, I don’t know how much traveling I’ll do. My mom’s side of the family lives in Ireland, England, and Scotland so if anything I’m going to visit there because the last time I saw most of them was 6 years ago. The only thing I’m dying to see in person is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I wrote a 10 page paper on it in my Modern Structures class freshman year and it’s hands-down the COOLEST building to have ever been built.

Q: Will I be able to contact you while you’re over there?

A: Yup! I’ll have to get a Spanish cell phone so I can’t call or text anyone in the U.S. but there’s always facebook message and email!

Q: Where will you be living?

A: I will be living in a homestay (with a family) for the first month, before real classes start and while I’m taking the required intensive Spanish class. Then I will hopefully find some friendly international students to rent an apartment with.

Q: What will you be studying?

A: Civil Engineering (my major). If you’re into specifics, I will be taking Intermediate Sold Mechanics (I think it’s like dynamics…or more statics maybe?), Computational Engineering (stats), and various Geotechnical, Foundational, and Coastal Engineering design classes.

Q: Are the classes in Spanish?

A: No, they’re in English (thank goodness). I can barely understand my engineering classes in English so I can’t even imagine trying to learn it all in Spanish haha 🙂

Q: How are you going to survive for a whole year?

A: Great question. When I find out I’ll let you know 😀

And the questions no one has asked me yet, but I ask myself almost every day:

Q: Am I nervous/scared?

A: Yes.

Q: Am I still going to go?

A: Absolutely.

Of course, these are the easy questions and these aren’t even all of them. And sometimes by the end of the conversation I get a “Wow Meriel, you sure seem to have your life figured out.” Rest assured, I do not. In fact, most days at school I feel like this:

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And when I’m not at school, I’m at home baking my heart out like:

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#accurate