Sunday, January 24, 2016

Madrid Life & Segovia Trip

Quite a lot has happened in the past few weeks since my first blog entry, so I’ll do my best to bring everyone up to speed and to give you all a sense of what I'm experiencing here in Madrid. I’ll start with my new home: a small, older flat in the center of the city, which I share with two other students, one from L.A. and the other from Miami. Our apartment is nothing extravagant—with three modest bedrooms, a living room that serves more as a den, a kitchen that permits use by one person at a time, and a bathroom the size of a closet—but it has an authentic Spanish feel and could not have a more perfect location.
IMG_0042 (1).jpg
Puerta del Sol
We’re situated just a minute away from the Puerta del Sol, which is equivalent to Madrid’s Times Square and essentially the focal point of the city. There are also dozens of restaurants, bars, and discotecas within a stone’s throw of our apartment building, which can really burn a hole through your wallet, but is very convenient and fun.

I’d say I’m pretty much settled in here, although it still feels more like a short-term vacation than a temporary home. Frankly, I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully leave the honeymoon phase with Madrid during my five months here, only because the city is so enchanting and home to a seemingly unlimited stock of new sights to see. I have no problem with this, but I hope to eventually be able to call myself a true Madrileño (person of/from Madrid). I haven’t experienced any major homesickness yet, but I’ve definitely missed everyone back home, especially the family. Thank you to everyone who has reached out thus far; I love hearing from all of you! If anyone ever wants to chat or Skype/FaceTime, afternoons and early evenings (U.S. time) typically work well for me. Finally, I’ve missed the one and only Moose(L)-Up Gym and the community there that serves as a second family. Keep grinding and being awesome, guys!
IMG_0049 (1).jpg
View down Calle Arenal from Puerta del Sol
During this month, I have been taking an intensive Spanish course at Universidad Antonio de Nebrija, which is located about a twenty-minute metro ride away from my apartment. The university moved its location just a few weeks ago, much closer to the city center, and is in a building that used to house soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, which is pretty cool. The early start language and culture course consists of four consecutive hours of class Monday through Thursday, and two hours on Friday. We take one language class and one culture class, and it’s quite rigorous but has been very helpful. I’ve especially enjoyed my culture class, where we learn about the geography, history, and customs of Spain. In two weeks, the intensive course ends and the normal semester starts, during which I'll continue taking classes entirely in Spanish, and I will have Fridays off. Travel time!
IMG_0054 (1).jpg
A majestic Palacio Real at nighttime
Using the language here has been a lot of fun, but also quite a challenge. Natives speak unbelievably fast and use lots of colloquial sayings and informal speech, prompting a glazed-over look from learners like myself. However, in just a couple weeks I’ve noticed how much easier it has become to communicate and I’m confident that with more time and exposure, the language will come. One thing I’ve realized is that, despite being in a Spanish-speaking country, there aren’t always many opportunities to practice speaking unless they are actively sought out. It’s easy to go through a day saying nothing more than “Gracias” or “Un vino tinto, por favor”, and while a lot of damage can be done with those phrases, it’s probably necessary to know more in order to live abroad. So I’ve started being more proactive and trying to find ways to practice since I don’t live in a homestay or with Spaniards. For example, I began doing a language exchange (intercambio) with a girl from Madrid named Sara. This has allowed me to practice speaking a lot, and she has shown me some really interesting, non-touristy places to grab a drink or food. My roommates and I also went to an intercambio night at a club, where tons of international students come to practice language and meet new people. Being in a non-English-speaking country has truly been a humbling experience, and has made me aware of how much we take for granted our ability to communicate with each other. Something as simple as speaking to order food here can require some serious thought—and occasionally twenty minutes of translating the menu—but in English it is so habitual and easy. I highly recommend you to take a few moments today to think about how special your ability to use language is, even your native tongue, and to consider it from an outsider perspective. And then go learn another one!

This past weekend, I took my first trip outside of Madrid to Segovia, which is just over an hour north of the capital. On the way to the city, I also caught my first glimpse of the mountains surrounding Madrid. I sat next to my roommate from L.A., for whom mountains are pretty standard, but the beautiful mounds of elevated land captivated this Midwestern boy. I definitely see a hiking trip in my near future. IMG_0135.jpgUpon arriving to Segovia, the first thing we saw was, you guessed it, the Roman aqueducts. They were quite impressive, especially considering the structure is held together without any sort of adhesion, and instead uses equilibrium to stay erect. Our guide also told us a cool legend about how the aqueduct was made. Supposedly there was a girl whose job was to carry buckets of water back and forth to the ancient city for several hours at a time. One day, the Devil appeared and offered to build her the aqueduct in exchange for her soul. The girl agreed, but on one condition: it must be completed within a day. The devil concurred, after which the young girl prayed to the Virgin Mary that the day be shortened by five minutes. Ever the procrastinator, the Devil was just a few blocks short when the day ended prematurely.
Roman Aqueducts; in the center pillar you can see the gap that saved the girl in the story
Thus, the girl was freed from her water-carrying duty and retained her soul. This reminded me of the myth surrounding Robert Johnson, the old Delta Blues guitarist, who presumably sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar-playing skills. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a loophole to get his soul back, but you can’t say it was a bad deal if you’ve ever heard the man play.
We toured the Alcázar (palace) and the cathedral, both of which were amazing. Here are photos of both:

Below is the Nebrija crew that took on Segovia. I met some really awesome people there who come from all over the world. I’ve got to say that meeting other international students has been one of my favorite parts of studying abroad during these first two weeks. Travel is certainly about seeing new sights and going to new places, but above all, it’s about meeting new people, and I’m fortunate to have such a diverse group to spend time with.

Well, that's all for now folks! Thanks for reading. I'm taking a longer trip in a couple weeks (destination TBD), so my next post will most likely focus on that. ¡Chao!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Un Día Más

One day lies between me and the start of my study abroad journey. At this time tomorrow, I’ll be at O’Hare eagerly awaiting my plane, costly overweight luggage in tow, day-dreaming about tapas and Spanish wine. The beginning of this trip coincides almost perfectly with the start of the New Year, so I’d like to take the first part of this post to thank everyone who had a hand in making 2015 so memorable. I’m continually humbled by how fortunate I’ve been in my life to be surrounded by wonderful people and to have had the opportunities that I’ve had. And this trip is no exception. I’m indescribably grateful to be able to study abroad, and I look forward to making the most of every second of it. Now, on to the nitty-gritty of the trip.
I will be studying abroad as part of CEA’s Madrid Spanish Language & Culture Early Start Program. Let’s break that down. I will be studying in Madrid, which is the capital and largest city of Spain, located in the center of the country. The “Spanish Language & Culture” portion of the program means that I will be learning about all things Spanish in the classroom, as opposed to a business track or something similar, and also that my classes will be taught exclusively in Spanish. Finally, “Early Start” means that I will be arriving in Madrid a month before the normal semester begins to take a six credit-hour intensive language prep course. As someone deeply interested in learning the language, this was a no-brainer, especially as it gives me an extra month to explore. In terms of housing, I will be living in an apartment with two other American students. I considered doing a homestay, and I know they can be fantastic, but I ultimately opted for the apartment because I want as much freedom as possible. Besides, there will be tons of other opportunities to practice Spanish and experience the culture outside of home.
Next, I want to write a bit about why I decided to study abroad, and why I chose Spain among the many Spanish-speaking countries. I hope other students planning to study abroad, and anyone considering learning Spanish, can learn something from my research and experiences. First and foremost, I’m studying abroad because I love the Spanish language. It’s something I’ve enjoyed since high school, but I really became passionate about it this past summer when I began speaking with natives via Skype (at the end of this post I will discuss how I did this). Until then, I had never done much live speaking, and I had something of a revelation as I spoke with people from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Spain, etc. Spanish was connecting me to people from all over the world, and allowing me to learn their culture while sharing mine. This sounds rather obvious, but after having a conversation with an Argentinian student about politics, or discussing Spanish nightlife with a girl from Alicante, it takes on a whole new meaning. And once I had a taste of this cultural transfusion, I was certain that I wanted the full immersion via a study abroad trip.
There is another reason I want to study abroad that is common among every student who does so: the experience. Living in another country. Meeting new people. Trying new food. Traveling far and wide. A trip like this is chock full of exciting new adventures and opportunities, including anything from touring the Museo del Prado to partying until the crack of dawn at a discoteca. Surely this is about having fun and making lasting memories, but just as important, it’s about learning and growing as a person. Travel affords the opportunity to see how other people live and to challenge preconceived notions and deeply held beliefs through immersion. This is the real benefit of travel, and it’s something I’m eager to undergo myself. Through these experiences, I hope to achieve personal growth, greater cultural tolerance and understanding, intellectual development, and countless other benefits.
As for why I chose to study abroad in Madrid, there are a few things. First of all, I’ve always wanted to travel to Europe, with the proximity of so many interesting countries and the variety of culture. As of now, I’ve already booked trips to France, Ireland, and Croatia, and that’s just the beginning. Next, I’ve been enchanted by Spain since I learned about it in a high school Spanish class. There is much cultural diversity within Spain alone, with several regions even speaking their own language. Additionally, the Old World still evident in many Spanish cities fascinates me, and I’m excited by the idea of living in a country with such a deep history. With the first two points in mind, the decision was obvious considering my interest in Spanish. I debated between Madrid and Salamanca, another central city, but decided on Madrid due to its size and accessibility.
Last but not least, I’m a firm believer in the power of written word as an impetus for action, and as a means of holding oneself accountable, so I’m going to share some of my goals for this trip here:
  1. Achieve C1 fluency upon completion of the program (based on the Common European Framework)
  2. Follow a no-English rule as much as possible
  3. Visit at least one city in each of the regions of Spain
  4. Make lasting friendships with natives
  5. Journal and blog as frequently as possible
  6. Learn to dance Flamenco
I’m going to wrap this first post up here, but be on the lookout for future ones—at least one per month—and plenty of pictures to accompany them. If anyone would like to contact me while I’m away, my phone should be up and running within the first few days after my arrival, but I think Facebook messenger and Whatsapp will be the best ways to get in touch. Once again, a big thanks to everyone who helped me pull this trip together, and I look forward to sharing my adventures with you all. ¡Gracias por leer y hasta la próxima!

P.S. For anyone interested in the Skype conversations I mentioned earlier, please check out This is an online community of language learners where you can do professional and informal lessons or language exchanges. The lessons are very affordable, and I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences with teachers. The language exchanges are free, and it’s very easy to find people who speak your target language that are also learning English. I’ve made some great friends through these language exchanges, and have learned a ton of Spanish to boot. I can’t recommend this website enough for practicing the spoken and aural parts of language learning.