Final post, ladies and gentlemen. I thought I’d take this time to give some advice for studying abroad. I’m not saying I did this trip perfectly and you should follow my example exactly; I’m just sharing what worked for me and what I wished I would have done differently.

1. Be prepared…You’ll hear this many times before you study abroad, but I didn’t realize how important this advice was until I actually came to Spain. I had studied up some on the country and culture, but like many of you, I was swamped with homework. What I did look up came in handy, though. Before studying abroad, I learned that people in Spain tend to eat a light breakfast, a big lunch around 2:00 or 3:00, and dinner around 9:00 or 10:00. I also looked up Spain’s king and president, so I was able to answer my culture teacher’s questions. I think this one is the most important: The more you know about a country’s culture or history beforehand, the more prepared you’ll be before taking these classes. In other words, when you already know the history or culture, you’ll simply be translating your teacher’s lectures instead of learning something new and then translating, which is more difficult and stressful. Plus, you’ll be learning new vocabulary.

2. Try new things. I’m not saying you need to eat cow brains (which I’ve never tried but don’t necessarily recommend) or run off with a complete stranger (which I also didn’t do but REALLY DON’T RECOMMEND), but you need to be open to new experiences. Order something new every time you’re in a restaurant. Try out a new route when walking from the university to your house. Check out a museum or concert even if the event’s not necessarily your thing. And por el amor de Dios, avoid American stuff! Did you honestly spend thousands of dollars and twelve hours on a plane to eat at Burger King? You’re here to learn about the culture, so learn! Explore! Trust me, you won’t regret it.

3. Speak as much of the language as possible, even if you’re with your American classmates. I found speaking Spanish to my roommate to be very useful, because if I couldn’t think of a word, I’d look it up later so I could use the correct word or phrase with native speakers. You’ll learn pretty quickly what you know or don’t know, so why not practice with both friends and native speakers? The more you speak the language (to yourself, your host family, the servers in restaurants), the more you’re learn and the better you’ll get.

4. Pack lightly. You’ll hear that a lot before going too. As hard as it may be for some of you, pack the bare minimum of clothing, then take out a couple items. And before you leave for home, throw out any toiletries like shampoo bottles or toothpaste that can be easily replaced when you’re back in the States. That way, you’ll create even more room because, believe me, you will buy a ton of stuff when you study abroad. Even if you think you’re not much of a shopper, a tiny voice in the back of your head will remind you that it’s not every day you’re in a foreign country, so buy something that will prove that you were there. Plus, packing lightly means you have less to drag along with you as you run from one terminal to another.

5. Don’t complain. Yes, I’ve already ranted about this, but it’s that important. And yes, things about the trip will drive you crazy. So if you absolutely have to complain, the least you could do is complain in the local language! One girl who had seven years of Spanish classes complained in English for most of the trip. Complaining is pointless for three reasons: (1) Some people just don’t want to hear it. Guess what: people actually came there to have an amazing time, and they want to make the most of it. So why bring them down with your negativity? (2) You’re most likely complaining to the wrong people. If you have a real complaint, such as not receiving important emails before the trip, talk to the program director so things will change. If you don’t have a real complaint, such as not liking everything your host family cooks for you, suck it up and remember you’ll be back in America soon enough. (3) You’re focusing on the negative. Is that really what you want to remember about your study abroad trip, or are you going to focus on the fact that you’re eating, traveling, studying, learning, and living in a different country? Try to focus on the fact that you’re eating tortilla patata and chocolate con churros for the first time, that you’re standing in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and watching the protesters, or that you’re actually understanding what your host family or teachers say to you. Studying abroad is an amazing experience if you let it be.

Well, that’s all I have for the moment. It’s been an absolute pleasure writing this, and not just because it provided another source to talk about my trip! Thanks for supporting me and my writing as I traveled, studied, and returned home. I sincerely hope you’ll take your own journey and create your own memories.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I came home from Spain. Was I going to jump right back into American culture, or was I going to stay Spanish? As I should have suspected, I’m doing a little of both right now. I’m no longer starving for supper at 5:00 like I used to be, but I can’t wait until 9:00 to eat either. I’m still taking advantage of siestas as well. My nap yesterday was a solid two hours! I’m speaking English again, obviously, but Spanish words and phrases have been sneaking into the conversation as well. I still say “vale” when I mean “okay,” I thank people by saying “gracias,” and “salud” seems to have replaced “bless you” altogether. I’m loving American food again, having eaten almost zero red meat in Spain. But my family bought me two cookbooks, one of traditional Spanish dishes and one of tapas, so that I can share what I got to eat with them. How thoughtful! I love flipping through the pages and finding the foods I actually had a chance to try. Before I left Spain, I thought I would miss the land too much. Coming from North Dakota, trees and mountains are new to me. Since Spain’s full of them, I thought the Spanish countryside was beautiful. Then I saw my own countryside again. My family and I live a few miles outside of town. We have fourteen acres to ourselves and a big white farmhouse on a hill. Just before I came back to the States, North Dakota received a lot of rain, so the first thing I noticed when I came home was how green everything was. Honestly, I forgot how pretty North Dakota really is, and I forgot how much I love living in the country. Living in Ávila was great, don’t get me wrong. I loved actually being able to walk when I wanted to go to the mall or the plazas or restaurants. I loved how a 30-minute walk was no big deal, quite manageable, actually. But I love living in the country more and seeing nature, not buildings. I love having my own space and privacy. I also found out that just about everything that is said in our house is a perfect segue to a story about Spain. I’m starting to feel a little like Cliff Clavin, but luckily my family has not gotten tired of the stories yet. They might soon, but maybe I’ll be back at UND by then. I knew I was coming back to farmhouses and picnic food, but I didn’t account for all the things that would change when I was gone. When I was in Spain, six weeks flew by. Honestly, I didn’t realize how long I was away from home until I started ripping off pages on my Jeopardy! calendar. (I’m a nerd; get used to it.) Then my sister went on YouTube to show me all the new music I missed when I was away. She also showed me around her workplace and I got to see just how much she does there and how sure she is of what she has to do. I hadn’t realized before then that I had in fact been gone for a month and a half, plenty of time to learn the ropes of a new job. I also came back to North Dakota to find that two of the biggest cities close to us were flooded. My parents had mentioned the flooding in emails, but what I had pictured was nothing compared to what I saw in the news. Some homes are up to their roofs with water and many people already know their houses will have to be bulldozed when the water goes down. I certainly feel grateful that my own home has been unaffected, but it’s just surreal to see these houses on the news. It’s weird to see how much has changed since I’m been away, but I guess it’s good to know the world doesn’t stop when I go.

Shorter blog this week: Amidst all the packing and the last-time treks across Ávila, I didn´t have time to write the usual novel. Two days left and I´m trying to figure out what to feel. (I overthink things, if you haven´t noticed.) Maybe a better way to phrase it is I´m trying to find the perfect combination of being sad about leaving and excited about going home. For example, if all I can think about is going home, then I´m going to miss out on the rest of the trip. But if I can´t stand the thought of leaving Spain, then I´ll just be melancholy for the rest of the summer, thinking about what´s behind instead of what´s ahead of me: seeing my family again, showing off my pictures, and eating all the Spanish sweets I´m bringing home. Instead, what I need to do is soak up today and tomorrow (not Saturday, that´s my stuck-on-a-plane-or-in-airports day) and promise myself I´m coming back to visit. I don´t know when, I don´t know for how long, and I definitely don´t know where the money´s coming from. (I´m an education major.) Next time, I want to bring my family or my future students with me, and not just because I want to show off my Spanish skills! This type of trip is one that needs to be shared with others. It´s that awesome! This trip, I honestly wasn´t that homesick, because I knew at the beginning of the trip that everything I would miss (people, food, English) would be waiting for me in six weeks. Now that the end of the trip is near, I am excited to go home, but I´m also thinking about the things I didn´t have time for this time around. I never saw a fútbol game. I never went to a bullfight, although I don´t know if I would enjoy it or have to watch through my fingers. I never saw people running with the bulls (I´m in the wrong part of Spain for that.) There are so many things I didn´t do and foods I didn´t have a chance to try, but I find comfort in the fact that I still experienced a lot. I swam in the Mediterranean. I visited a castle and climbed up a tight-spiraling, terrifying tower. I made sloppy joes for my host mom. I visited seven different cities in Spain. I walked through El Prado and El Greco´s house, I explored an open market in Madrid without getting robbed, and I learned how to dance Las Sevillanas. Not to mention I survived six weeks of living with someone who spoke a different language, navigating unfamiliar cities and public transportation systems, eating food that wasn´t my family´s, and not turning on my cellphone. (The last one was actually the easiest for me!) I tried new food like tortilla patata, croquetas, turrón, cocido, and paella. I bought three books in Spanish, two fans, castañuelas, a flamenco skirt, postcards, a Universidad de Salamanca shirt, an ever-growing pile of Spanish snacks, and much more. I´m going to miss my host mom, classmates, teachers, and this city, but I chose to focus of all the positive aspects of this trip (everything) and share my stories in hopes of inspiring other students to take their own journey into unfamiliar territory.

Only a week and a half left here. You have no idea how scary and exciting that is at the same time. I´m counting down the days until I see my family again, but at the same time I´m drinking in this beautiful city, wondering why on earth I thought six weeks would be long enough. Six weeks away from my family–long enough. Six weeks to master Spanish and explore everything Spain has to offer? Not even close. You´ll miss things when you study abroad. Your family. Your friends. Your dog. Popcorn. Peanut butter. Your dad´s steaks. Your mom´s brownies. Your brother´s energy. Your sister´s stories. You are also going to lose things when you go, not just tangible things like a left sock or the anklet your sister made you, but intangible things as well. For example, I lost my storytelling abilities in Spain. Telling my host mom about the time I upended an entire fishtank and dresser loses a lot of its humor (no, really) when I have to pause after every sentence and think, “Now how do I say this in Spanish?” Stories that I could easily recite in my sleep are now filled with pauses and a much simpler vocabulary. I also lost some of my sense of humor. I don´t laugh at things nearly as much as I would at home, simply because I still don´t understand every single word that people say to me. (But I definitely understand more now than I did when I first arrived in Spain.) My roommate and I found a joke book in a book shop and said, “I don´t get it” after every joke we read. That´s another thing you´ll lose too: your sense of feeling smart. Believe me, it´s really frustrating when your teacher or host mom has to repeat something three times and all you can give them in return is a blank, uncomprehending stare. There will be days on your trip when you will feel dumb. For example, I like to think my grammar is really good. One day in my grammar class, we wrote a short composition describing our host family´s house. Simple, right? I thought so too until I received my paper and it was covered with red marks. I´ve developed a huge amount of respect for any immigrant or refugee who has ever had to learn a new language without first receiving the amount of schooling I´ve had. Until you lived in a place where the people speak a different language, you have no idea just how difficult it truly is. Honestly, though, that´s just part of the learning experience. You acknowledge what you did wrong and figure out how to do it right. Even more frustrating than not understanding is other people thinking you don´t understand when you actually do. Some people will speak more slowly, placing gargantuan pauses between each word. Others, like my host mom, will act out what they´re saying. Just the other day she acted out the word “nadar” (to swim), a word I learned in my first year of Spanish. Other people, especially those working in tourist destinations like Madrid or Valencia, will switch over to English the minute you say, “¿Qué?” (What?). I have found some ways to combat this, though, and to show people that I understand more than they realize. Tip #1: If you missed a word and you don´t want people to repeat the entire story or repeat the question much…more…slowly, try to repeat as much of what you understood back to them. For example, if someone tells you, “Voy a la pandería” (I´m going to the bakery), and you missed or didn´t understand the last word, just ask, “¿Adónde vas?” (Where are you going?). Or simply ask what the word means. That´s another thing you´ll learn here. Tip #2: Ask questions. As silly as it may feel pointing to an everyday object like an outlet and saying, “What´s this called?” that´s how you learn. But to avoid people dumbing things down for you, say what you understand and what you specifically don´t understand. During the explanation, you may have to say things like, “Sí, entiendo esto” (Yes, I understand that), so people don´t feel the urge to explain the same thing seven different ways. People here don´t want to make you feel stupid; they just have no way of knowing what you already know. They´re not mind readers. Tip #3: Pretend you´re hard of hearing. (As my family already knows, this one is really easy for me!) If people think you simply didn´t hear them, they´ll only repeat what they just said, without slowing down or switching to English. “No te oyé” (I didn´t hear you) has become one of my most-used phrases here and actually happens to be the case 90% of the time. All that said, you will gain so much when you study abroad. First, you will realize that you know a lot more (and a lot less) of the language than you give yourself credit for. And you will learn so much when you´re there, from your teachers, host families, tour guides, street signs, price tags, movies, news programs, sweet shops, and more. You´ll pick up terms of endearment, slang, idioms,  swear words, and insults. You´ll even find that some of the things you learned in high school aren´t even used where you study. But the most important thing you´ll learn is that your life (your language, habits, beliefs, etc.) is not universal. Even the smallest things are not universal. For example, in my host mom´s house, I only drink milk for breakfast. I drink water for the rest of my meals. When I told my host mom what I do in the States, she couldn´t seem to wrap her head around the fact that I drink cold milk (most people heat it up here) for all three meals and never have stomach problems. On Sunday I helped her mow the lawn and learned that you can buy lawnmowers that plug into an outlet like a vacuum cleaner. It´s a rewarding feeling when you have the chance of broadening your horizons, when you can see for yourself how the world truly is bigger than your own backyard. I feel honored to be able to say, “I tried this. I saw that. I lived there.”

I can officially cross “swimming in the Mediterranean” off my bucket list. Last weekend was our long weekend, with no classes on Friday or Monday. Many of the EMU students visited Barcelona, some went to Rome, and a couple students went to Granada and Sevilla. The other UND girls and I went to Valencia, south of Barcelona and on the Mediterranean coast. The weekend before, we had visited Madrid, but we crammed El Prado, La Plaza Mayor, La Puerta del Sol, and El Corte Inglés (just to name a few) into one day. This weekend was much more relaxing, since we had three whole days to explore the city. One of the main attractions, the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciencies (City of the Arts and Sciences), was split into two days. We visited a dinosaur exhibit and the Oceanogràfic (the aquarium) one day and saw the Museu de las Ciències Príncipe Felipe (Prince Felipe Science Museum) and an IMAX movie at the Hemisfèric (the planetarium) the next. Plus, we visited the Institut Valencià d´Art Modern (the modern art museum), La Plaza de la Virgen and La Plaza de la Reina. Sunday morning was our beach day, where four out of the six of us burned to a nice raw-steak red. The other two apparently never sunburn, which is just not fair. That day had been my first time in salt water, much less the Mediterranean. It was amazing! I was grinning like a four-year-old locked inside a candy shop; I thought I would never leave! I even collected some Plaza de la Malvarrosa sand and seawater in an empty travel-sized bottle of mouthwash. Don´t judge; I´m from a landlocked state! The only not-so-great part about my trip to the beach was the half-naked part. Many (or all, I´ve only been to one) of the beaches in Spain allow people to be topless. A small part of me appreciates how comfortable españoles of all ages and sizes are with their bodies, but a much larger part of me REALLY wanted them to cover up. As obvious as it may sound, the sun in Spain feels a lot hotter than it does where I´m from. Normally in North Dakota, I would have to spend quite a bit of time in the sun to burn as badly as I did. In Spain, however, it only took 3 hours (half of which was spent in the water) to turn my shade of red. And of course, since I wasn´t even trying to tan (I´ve come to terms with my pasty white skin), only the right sides of my legs, my chest, shoulders, and back sunburned. I can still see the exact lines of my swimsuit top and I´m convinced that my sunburned back shows a faint outline of my French braid that day. On a different note, here´s my advice for the week: When you study or even just travel abroad, you´ll have to decide between staying in hostals or hotels. Hostals are cheaper and usually allow you to meet students from all over the world. Hotels tend to be in better condition and allow you to keep your valuables in your room while you explore the city. Personally, I prefer hotels. If you travel in a large enough group, a hotel room will actually be cheaper, since you´re paying per room instead of per bed like you would in a hostal. That way, you can split the cost among your peers. Plus, I just feel safer in a hotel. When we went to Madrid, we hung “Do not disturb” signs on our doors, so we didn´t even have to think about the possibility of hotel staff going through our stuff. The benefits and drawbacks of hotels and hostals will be different for everyone, but I personally will always choose feeling safer over saving money. Case in point: One girl who stayed in a hostal awoke to find a complete stranger climbing into her bed. He knew perfectly well that this was not his bed and that he had another bed waiting for him in another room. After several minutes of telling him, “Déjame en paz” (leave me alone), she climbed out of bed and joined one of her friends. He finally left the room in a huff, but not before stealing an Australian´s towel first. You can´t make this stuff up! I will add, though, that as much as it makes me sound like a spin doctor, I´m sure many people have stayed in hostals without having a traumatic experience. I personally would much rather stay in hotels. That said, just because you feel safe in a place does not give you the right to completely forgo common sense. Case in point: Two girls on the trip thought it would be a great idea to go out drinking and bring two complete strangers back to the hotel with them and then let them spend the night on the couch. These girls lucked out in that the two guys were very respectful and didn´t try to touch or rob anyone, but let me emphasize lucked out. So many things could have gone wrong in this situation, and these two girls need to count their blessings that they left unscathed. This decision of theirs was stupid, irresponsible, and dangerous. First of all, don´t drink; it destroys your judgment. Second of all, I don´t care if you talked to the person for five or ten hours; you can´t guarantee that he/she is a good, trustworthy person after just one meeting. We were told before we left that if we wouldn´t try it at home, we shouldn´t try it over there. Safety rules in Spain are the same as they are back home: Travel in groups, watch your stuff, stick to well-traveled and well-lit areas and for God´s sake don´t bring home or go home with complete strangers. You leave them where you found them.

I probably should have given you this warning in the very first post. Every study abroad experience is different, whether it´s the location, duration, or program. My time in Ávila might be different from your future trip to China, Norway, or even another city in Spain. You might love your teachers or you might hate them. You might have a María for a host mom, or you might end up with someone who never talks to you or who cooks all your least favorite foods. No trip is perfect, and you never know what´s going to happen, but isn´t that part of the magic? Isn´t that why people study abroad, to experience something completely different from everything they know? I was going to save this rant for the end, as part of a reflection blog, but it just can´t wait. I am about to tell you the worse part of my trip to Spain, the thing that could quite possibly ruin my amazing experience here in Ávila. Are you ready for this? The only (read it: ONLY) thing I could possibly complain about here in Spain is…other people complaining. Yes, you read that correctly. As ironic (and hypocritical) as it sounds, I´m complaining about other people´s complaints. I get it: I tend to see the world through rose-colored gafas. Okay, that´s an understatement. They´re more like hot pink, glittery glasses with Hello Kitty-shaped lenses. And I understand: Many of the students have had legitimate complaints. Some have host families who smoke constantly in the living room. Others have had troubles maintaining their vegetarian diets while here. Six people on this trip missed their flight from Atlanta to Madrid, so they had to arrive a day later than everyone else. But others have not had good reasons to complain (in my humble opinion). One person complained that her host family served her the same food every day (this one was made on our second day in Spain). Another complained that we walk too much here (but didn´t one of our emails say beforehand that we´ll be walking anywhere from 6 to 10 miles daily?). One even had the nerve to gripe about a hotel employee who spoke to us in English when she said she was here to learn Spanish. This would have been a legitimate complaint had it not been for the fact that she and the others had been speaking English to each other the whole weekend. We had given the people of Madrid no reason to think we knew any Spanish. I guess the reason that these complaints bother me so much is because this is my first time in Spain. I´m here to enjoy and experience everything: the food, landscape, people, language, and culture. I get to spend six weeks in a beautiful country surrounded by new people and new food, learning more about one of my favorite subjects. What could I possibly complain about? I can miss American food and customs all I want, but I´ll have those again in 3 1/2 weeks. There´s a chance I might never be able to come back to Spain, so I´m determined to make this the most positive and rewarding experience possible. And here´s the thing that the naysayers need to keep in mind: When you go to a new country, things are going to be different. You´ll discover that the people there greet each other, say things, shop, travel, prepare food, and think differently than you might. It sounds obvious, but I think some people are losing sight of that. Did they honestly think that they were spending a month and a half in another country just like theirs, in a house just like theirs, with a family just like theirs? Even if you don´t know how things will be different when you study abroad, you at least need to acknowledge that they will be. You get out of this trip what you put into it. If you come here and never leave your room, you won´t meet new people. If you only eat at the McDonald´s here, you´ll never try new food. If you speak English the whole time, you won´t learn Spanish. I´m not saying that this trip is a lemon and you need to turn it into lemonade. I´m saying this trip is the lemonade, the most amazing pitcher that only a few people in this world will ever be able to try, but you only have enough for six weeks. So you need to ask yourself: When you drink it, are you going to taste the sugar or the lemons?

    Coming from a family where our motto is “Food is love,” I was most excited about trying new foods in Spain. Some people come for the music, the beer, or the discotecas, but not this girl. I´m all about the tapas and dulces. My host mom, María, has failed to disappoint when it comes to authentic Spanish cooking. Background information: María lives in what we Americans would call a duplex (un chalé adosado in Spanish) in a newer section of town. Her house is absolutely gorgeous. It has a front and back porch surrounded by glass instead of screened-in like in the United States. She also has a neat little backyard (called a jardín) and fences covered in vines. My American roommate, Kate, and I sleep in the loft, which has a tilted ceiling and two skylights. María is extremely friendly. She has done everything in her power to ensure that we have an authentic Spanish experience. Even though our breakfast of cereal and juice is more American, our lunches and dinners are muy típicos (very typical) of Spain. So far she´s cooked us fish soup, tortillas patatas (like our omelettes with potatoes thrown in), and croquetas (kind of like our hushpuppies but filled with ham  and cheese), among other dishes. We usually drink water with our meals and we always have bread, not our presliced stuff back home but delicious, crispy artisan bread that people purchase from a pandería (bread shop or bakery) every other day. We typically end our cena (dinner) with fruta (fruit)and yogur (yogurt). We´re stuffed to the point of bursting after lunch and dinner, but it´s just further proof that we´re loved here! We watch the news and Spanish movies while we eat to improve our Spanish and of course keep up in Spanish news. It was María´s idea. I don´t understand everything I hear yet, but I´m learning. Since María works during the day, we only eat with her at night. María still makes us lunch for us to heat up in the microondas (microwave) every day after our classes. Plus, she also makes us sandwiches (called bocatas, bocadillas, or pinis) every day to snack on between classes. We´re American; we´re not used to waiting until 2:00 or 3:00 to eat lunch! She washes our clothes too, and I´m convinced she hid the dish soap from me so I would quit washing dishes when she´s out of the house. On top of all that, she takes us shopping, helping us find the ATMs and purchase cheap, prepaid phones. I believe all the host families are compensated for our stay here, but María has gone above and beyond to make us feel welcome. ¡Muchas gracias, María!

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