How College and my Study Abroad Program Prepared me for a Life in Spain

Emails form part of my daily routine, and many who write are travelers looking for a great place to eat or see flamenco, asking about what to miss and what can’t be missed, and seeking information on where to stay in Seville or how to get around.

As my blog readership grew and moved into an expat blog, I began to get more and more inquiries about moving to Spain, which prompted me to co-found COMO Consulting Spain

On my first trip to Europe in 2001, at age 15

Claire’s recent email stood out. At 17, she’s already dreaming of moving abroad once she finishes school. When I was 17, I’d already traveled to Europe twice and was hooked on the idea that I’d study abroad. The more I think about it, the more a life overseas made sense, thanks to the decisions I made in college and what seems to be a four-year beeline straight towards my final destination.

With her permission, I’m including a snippet of our conversation, as well as a longer explanation of how I got to Seville in the first place:

Claire D. writes:

I just started reading your blog a few days ago and I’m already hooked. I’m seventeen and ever since I visited last summer, I’ve been in love with the idea of living in Europe. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody else who has the same dream as me so I’ve been searching for information and advice from people who have experienced living abroad, which is how I found your blog. I feel like I have so many questions for you but I’ll start with your study abroad program.

I’ll be starting university here in Canada in September and I’m thinking about majoring in Global Studies. I know you mentioned that you studied abroad during your college education as well. I was wondering what you majored in and if it was related in any way to your studies of Spanish language in Spain.

I knew what I wanted to study from the time I was 12. My elementary school had a TV lab, and each sixth grade class got to produce a morning news program. My first assignment was interviewing other students about fire safety on the playground. As a kid with countless interests, being in a cubicle would NEVER be for me.
 
College
At the University of Iowa, I went into journalism, but we were forced to pick another major or concentration. Most of my peers chose Poli Sci or English. The reason I chose International Studies as my second major was because it was a DIY program, so all I had to do was argue my way into classes, prove that they had something to do with international studies, and I could earn credits towards my degree.
 
 
Christi and I lived with the same host family in Spain!
 
I enrolled in courses like Paris and the Art of Urban Life, Beginner French, Comparative Global Media and Intercultural Narrative Journalism. I have always loved travel, languages and media, so a concentration in international communication was a great fit for me, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed my coursework. I also chose to minor in Spanish because it was my favorite subject in high school.
 
Little did I know that choosing to minor because, hey! I’m an overachiever, would actually set a course for the rest of my life. My mom studied in Rome during college, and all but demanded I do the same (she did not, however, ask this of my little sister). Between dozens of cities and scores of program choices, I balked and did the simplest one: a six-week summer program in Valladolid, Spain, operated and accredited by the state of Iowa. A large contributing factor was the $1000 that went towards my tuition, too.
 
Study Abroad
I know virtually nothing about Valladolid, a former capital about two hours northwest of Madrid, and my first impression was not great: a hazy day and a kid peeing on the side of the road. As our program director, Carolina, called off names and assigned my classmates to host families, I grew really nervous.
 
 
With Aurora, my host sister, in Valladolid
 
Aurora lived in the Rondilla neighborhood of Valladolid in an ático. She was in her mid 30s – a far cry from the majority of señoras who were widows and creeping up on the tercera edad. Her mother of the same name came each day to make our beds, cook for us and wash our clothes. From the very start, young Aurora welcomed us into her home and her circle of friends, inviting me and my roommate out for drinks or movies, and making sure we were exposed to as much castellano as possible.
 
If you’re going to study abroad, do so with a host family. You’ll have someone to give you an introduction to Spanish life, cuisine and culture. My experience would have been much different if I’d lived with other Americans, and I still visit my host family as often as I can.
 
 
I took classes in Spanish Literature and Culture in Valladolid
 
When looking for a study abroad program, I’d suggest that you take into account more than just cost and location. Schools and programs are now offering internships, specialty courses and the ability to take class at universities with native university students. If your language skills are strong, give yourself that challenge. I also chose to study somewhere that was not a study abroad mecca – there were less than 40 Americans in Valladolid that  summer, so I learned far more in six weeks than I expected to! Consider going somewhere besides Granada or Barcelona, like Santander, Alicante or Murcia.
 
As soon as I was off the plane at O’Hate (wrote that accidentally, and it stays), I announced that I would be moving abroad as soon as I finished school in 2007.
 
Back to College
Once back in Iowa City, I dove back into coursework. I worked for the Daily Iowan, continued taking Spanish courses, had a successful summer internship at WBBM Chicago that could have turned into a job…but I dreamed of Spain.
 
My coursework became more and more focused on international communication and moving abroad, and my trips to the study abroad office were frequent.  At this point in time, there were very few gap year programs, and I had two choices: teach abroad or work on a holiday visa.
 
 
I also focused on my college football obsession and grilling brats on Saturday mornings.
 
My decision to teach in Spain was two-fold: I was nervous about the prospect of living abroad, and I knew I wasn’t done with Spain once I finished my study abroad program. I’m glad I had a primer before moving here after college – I may have been confused by Andalusian Spanish, but at least I was aware that things close midday! 
 
I received the email that I’d been accepted to teach English in Andalusia just a few days before graduating in May 2007. Then came the tailspin to get a visa, book flights, look for a place to live in Seville, figure out what the hell I was thinking when I applied to TEACH since I had an aversion to kids, and wondering if Spain was really worth all of the hassle.
 
Life In Spain
 
But I went anyway, touching down in the land of sunshine and siestas (and this blog’s namesake) on September 13th, 2007.
 
 
My parents have supported me since coming to Spain, even though we’re thousands of miles away from one another.
 
If I may say it, there’s a huge difference between living abroad alone when you’re still in your late teens as opposed to living there after you’ve graduated. Living abroad has its own set of what ifs, of doubts, of struggles, and when you’re younger (that is, if you’re a basket case like I was!), everything seems a little bit tougher. When I arrived in Seville, I lived with a 19-year-old girl from Germany who really struggled to be away from home, and ended up leaving soon after settling in. I highly suggest you consider studying abroad anywhere to get a taste of what to expect, whether in an English-speaking country or even in Spain. 
 
To be honest, adjustment was really hard at first. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly seven years, I feel at home and well-adjusted. There are so many factors that go into getting used to life elsewhere: language, customs, food, timetables, religion. I came ready for culture shock and loneliness, and I was SO lonely in Spain for about six weeks, but never turned down any invitation to do something or go out, whether from a coworker or from another expat. I have my sorority background to thank for that, and yet another reason why college really did its job in setting me up for adulthood.
 
 
Back to the studies. Here in Spain, I teach and direct an English academy in addition to freelance writing and translating, but think that my studies ultimately led me to this life abroad. Even though I’m not working with both feet in the journalism bucket, I honed my communication skills in a lot of other ways. Global studies is fascinating, and if you’re interested in higher education, should lend well to tons of cool masters programs in development, international communication or business, or even immigration law (that’s the next master’s I’d love to tackle!).
 
My Advice
Be open to all of the options and opportunities. Follow your heart. Take challenging coursework. Apply for internships abroad. Volunteer. Ask questions. Make friends with your professors and study abroad staff. Research. Take a leap of faith, and remember that you will make mistakes, have doubts and want to give it all up for the comfortable, for what you know, for a relationship or for something better (and perhaps it is).
 
You’ll probably have critics. My grandma has given me Catholic guilt all of my life, and is convinced I’m living abroad to torture her. I can say that my parents are now OK with my decision to stay in Spain and continue the life I’ve made for myself here, and they have supported me throughout – through break ups, bad jobs, strep throat, uncertainty and all of the lame stuff that being an adult (abroad or not) can bring.
 
 
Blending in…kind of…at the Feria de El Puerto in 2010
 
I do still dream of moving cities or even countries. The Novio is in the Spanish Air Force and occasionally has opportunities to go elsewhere. Even though I’m settled and happy in Seville, I’d love to go back to square one and start all over again – and write about it!
 
Do you have any questions about life abroad, teaching overseas, or Seville? Email me at hola@comoconsultingspain.com!

The Snow in Spain Falls Mainly in Madrid

All of my kiddos practically spat out the words when I saw them: “THEY SAY IT’S GOING TO SNOW ON FRIDAY CAT!” I had enjoyed a few blissful minutes of Iberian sunshine and warmth after arriving back to Spain from frigid Austria, only to have my reverie interrupted by some smart-ass weatherman on the radio who warned that temperatures in Sevilla, the hottest city in Spain, might get as low as one or two celcius degrees (35-37 F).
“Not like it matters for you,” Kike said. “You’ll be in Madrid and it will snow there for sure.”
And snow it did. A LOT. I arrived to Atocha about 21h30 and met Alvaro and Isabel, two friends who live there. We headed out for some din and a few beers and I went to bed early. I had to go to Madrid to get a visa to go to China, and the office is only open a few hours a week.
When I left Alvarito’s house at 9am the following morning, the snow was starting to fall but not sticking. It left wet puddles all over Puerta de Toledo. I hopped on the Metro and went 17 (yes, créetelo. 17) stops to Ciudad Lineal. Callejero street guide in hand, I followed Alvaro’s advice and hailed a cab. The Chinese Consulate is practically at the airport! I hailed a cab and he told me that the traffic was so bad because of the sudden snowfall, I would be better off walking. So I asked a bus driver. He told me the same things – half of the buses that should have been out on the streets, weren’t. So I took off walking, happy to have my umbrella with me because the flakes were FAT. And wet. My new boots have a line of salt halfway up because I walked nearly a kilometer.
I was so cold- the bus stops along the way read -1 celcius or lower – and thinking that with my luck, the consulate would have been moved to another location. Thankfully, 40 Josefina Valcarcel had posters written in chinese character welcomed me. It took a whopping three minutes to get to the front of the line and the lady was wonderfully helpful and nice. I ended up paying 123E for the visa – 90 for just being American and 33 to have it expedited immediately so I didn’t have to come back. Then it was back into the tundra, passing four of the same buses and traipsing through about 12 cm of snow.

Plaza Nueva under a blanket of snow

I met my buddy Jeremy in Plaza de España, one of the central plazas in Madrid. The whole city was blanketed in snow, but it didn’t stop the Madrileños from coming out of their houses and building snowmen, throwing snow balls and marveling in how the city had been converted into a white playground. Jeremy, who is from Chicago as well, took me to a shadddddy Chinese restaurant underneath the plaza. We ordered dumplings, rice, chicken with vegetables, sesame bean curd deliciousness and soup, and Jeremy taught me to use chopsticks (joder, I’m in trouble!). Then he said, “OMG LET’S GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY!” as if the native Chicagoan had never seen snow. We walked around Plaza del Debod, Campo de Casa, past the Palace and national Cathedral, through Puerta de Toledo and Sol.


Later, I met Alvaro and his two roommates to have dinner at their house and we switched on the news. Alvaro told me he didn’t make it into work because the roads were shit with the snow. 400km had been full of cars and traffic jams in and around Madrid, the airport shut down for a few hours. These people get snow a few times a year but the whole city shut down on Friday.

I spent the rest of the weekend with Alvarito and Izzy and made it out to Valladolid to celebrate Lucia’s 2.5 birthday and see Aurora’s new convertible. Why anyone would buy a car like that for a city that gets four months of warm weather a year is beyond me. It was nice to have real food and be in good company. I love Spanish host moms.

Return to the Homeland

Above: the Ayuntamiento of Valladolid, where I studied for five weeks in 2005
Below: My Spanish family: La abuela, Lucia, Aurora, Jose Luis, Carmen and Monica

My love affair with Spain started nearly three years ago when I studied in a town called Valladolid in the northern half of Spain. Located just two hours northwest of Madrid, this town was once the intellectual, political and de facto capital of Spain. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that Madrid (then a realllllly small village of like 5.000) became the capital. For five weeks, I studied modern Spanish lit and cultural at the Universidad de Valladolid and lived with a family in the neighborhood of Rondilla. I really had it all – the opportunity to live in Spain and speak a lot of Spanish, live like a Spaniard and meet Spaniards. Part of this was due to my luck in living with a family that took really good care of me and helped me learn a lot. Aurora and Aurora (mother and eldest daughter) and I have kept in contact over the last three years, and they invited me to visit them and stay with them in Valladolid. And after being here nearly seven months, I finally had a chance to go! Though Spain is about the size of Texas, the road system isnt as advanced, so going from south to north took about five hours, not including pit stops.

We left Sevilla, a toasty 28 grados, and drove straight north on the Ruta de la Plata. When riches from the New World came to Spain, they passed through Sevilla’s port, past Roman Mérida, Cáceres and up toward Madrid. I have wanted to see Extremadura for some time because I have a friend from Mérida, and I was in awe of how rustic it is. Cows and sheep wander in and out of ruined stone houses, towns of forty houses cluster around a central church spire, the valleys are covered in trees, green grass and yellow and purple flowers. And, once we hit Salamanca, it got flat like the Castilla-León I know. We passed all kinds of castles, and my excitement just kept growing once we got back into Vdoid.

Since I was there last, young Aurora had a baby girl, who I was really anxious to meet. Although we had problems with the directions, I remembered the city really well. When we arrived at the apartment, the abuela greeted us. She’s a little bit senile, so she thought I had traveled from the States with my American boyfriend. She was like, “He speaks Spanish really well!” And I said, “Well, he’s Spanish and has lived here for 28 years.” And then, like the good mama she was, she asked if I needed any clothes washed! Aurora arrived home with her baby Lucia, who is 20 months old. She looked like a mini Carolina with soft brown hair and big eyes and a big barriga (belly). She is one of the sweetest and smartest kids I’ve met. She and Kike immediately fell in love with each other, and it was really sweet watching him play with her and teach her things. She’s even learning English in school! Aurora the younger one has hosted a lot of students in the past few years, but I’m the only one who has made it back to Vdoid. She also said she remembered me speaking in Spanish better than anyone, but had noted an improvement. Truth be told, I was so nervous to be there, unable to speak. I have good days and bad days. Lately, they’ve been bad days. And I know plenty of Spaniards. I get nervous with my boyfriend and roommate! But anyway, we all sat around drinking wine and talking (Lucia even knows the famous, ARRIBA! ABAJO! cheer and joined us with her bottle). I showed Kike around some of the sights at night that were lit up and we went to SU for 2lit beers (for 3,00 euros) and Sotobanco for some copas. Sadly, Enrico was not there and I had to pay for my drinks. Good times.

The next morning, we took a walk around the city. Even though Kike lived in Salamanca, which is just over an hour away, he had never been in the city. We saw the Antigua, the theatres and Plaza Mayor, the cathedral, the university, etc. Really, there isn’t much to see, but it’s a gorgeous town. It’s very stately and very well-preserved. But after living in Andalucia for 7 months, I realize just how Catholic and reserved it is. People in Sevilla really do live in the streets because of the heat, and though they’re Catholic, it’s not as out in the open. There’s so much variedad in this country, and Sevilla is worlds away from Valladolid. I almost felt like I was bringing Kike home to meet my family there, and show him around my city. But we spent much more time back at Aurora’s on her terraza drinking Baileys and playing with the kids. Monica has grown into a little brat who dictates EVERYTHING, but I suppose that’s four-year olds. After spending the whole day snacking and talking and drinking, Kike and I headed out to a bunch of bars in the area.

Although the weekend was really relaxed, I was happy. Really, really happy. I’ve come a long way in the last seven months, and now I really feel comfortable here. I feel like I have every last thing I need here. And I’ve only got two months left here.

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