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An Unforgettable Experience of Studying Abroad in Spain

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For the majority of students enrolled in American universities, their first year of college life entails the stereotypical unpleasant dorm life, boring lectures in classes composed of 400 students, and cramming for finals, after having skipped the class multiple times. First and foremost, skipping class was strictly forbidden on Valencia campus and, although many students whined bitterly about this mandate, I found it helpful to have the extra incentive – that being my grade – to attend class. While I was not exempt from the class work or finals that are a part of freshman year, my first year of college was a fairy tale that took place studying abroad in the historic and enriched city of Valencia, España.

Via the cultural activities program, I had the opportunity to travel to numerous sites in Spain, to include Jaca, Madrid, Barcelona, Andalusia, and certain towns in the outlying areas of these significant towns. I had expected this relatively singular journey of mine to impact me; it is natural and anticipated for a person to bloom and change during their first year away from home. I feel, however, as though I grew and changed and learned in more ways than I thought was conceivably possible. Departing to any new place requires adaptation and my move to Spain was no exception; becoming comfortable with the Spanish culture did take time and learning Spanish has required every ounce of my patience. Recently I came across the Spanish expression merecer la pena, or to be worth it. Looking back on my time in Valencia, I can safely assert that the hard work truly mereció la pena. The experiences that I had on my own and with fellow students were otherworldly and never again will I have a comparable experience to my study abroad in Spain.

In the rare chance that time travel would ever exist and I could go back in time, I would without a doubt choose to study abroad in Spain again; there is no reason why I would alter my course in that regard. Granted, there are a few chapters in my fairytale first year abroad story that I would tweak, but my only true remorse is not being able to converse fluently and flawlessly in Spanish after having spent eleven months in Spain. That being said, I did improve my Spanish-speaking skills tenfold, which were non-existent at the time of my arrival, however I was hoping for the dramatic improvement – which sadly never occurred. Therefore, if I were permitted any do-overs, I would immerse myself even more so into the Spanish culture and language than I did, meet new people and attend every Spanish intercambio offered by the university. Although I did make many Spanish acquaintances whilst in Valencia, the trouble with these Spanish friends of mine was their eagerness to practice their English, thus hindering my aim to improve my Spanish. Further aggravating was the fact that their English ability was already far greater than the knowledge that I had of Spanish, which not only occasionally caused me embarrassment over my mistakes and lack of vocabulary, but also forced English to be the default language for our conversations if we ever had serious matters to discuss.

My struggle with the Spanish language was a natural consequence of the 150 English-speaking students all sleeping, eating, and associating 24/7 together. Perhaps if we lived in homestays with Valencian families this problem could have been assuaged, but that would have diminished the “family” bond that the program encourages when the students, staff, and faculty are together. On this topic, one of the most impressive aspects of the staff members of the Valencia program was their ability to plan interactive events for the entire group of students as well as transporting the approximate 150-200 of us to various location in Spain, such as the aforementioned Jaca, Madrid, Barcelona, and Andalusia. Not only were they able to ferry us from one city to the next, but also they managed to keep us safe and entertained throughout the extent of our stays, a combination which must be difficult to achieve when dealing with young adults.

While Valencia is a fascinating city in and of itself, excursions to these different regions in Spain enhanced my appreciation and understanding of Valencia; both historically and culturally. Moreover, after these week long trips packed with activities, it was a bit of a relief returning “home” to Valencia. In addition to the heightened estimation of Valencia, I believe that the trips to Jaca and Madrid were of utmost importance to the students who had never travelled in Spain before or who had not learned that much about the country in general. The topographical diversity that the country has to offer is quite frequently overlooked by Spain’s reputation as a “party peninsula.” As lovely as Valencia is, if one only travels to coastal cities, it reinforces that misconceived notion. Undoubtedly, Spain is a great place to party, but besides getting groovy, I find Spain has a lot to offer in terms of history, art, and architecture.

Out of the four different mandatory trips that the program hosted, I was most delighted with the planned functions in Jaca. From a historical perspective, I found Jaca both charming and engrossing. Besides being a prominent stop on the Camino de Santiago, Jaca has quite a lot of medieval history and was even the capital of Aragon a few centuries ago. In particular, the Jaca Cathedral, which was the first Romanesque church built in Aragon, sparked my interest by the unique checkerboard stone pattern displayed throughout the architecture. Moreover, being a lover of nature, the activities we did in Jaca appealed to me because the majority of them took place in the great outdoors, giving me an unreasonably high expectation for subsequent mandatory trips.

I would like to insert a disclaimer that our ensuing excursions were nevertheless exciting, albeit a different kind of fun; instead of outdoor adventures, we toured prominent places like galleries and monuments. Jaca was simply singular in the rustic activities in which we took part. As well as feeling content outside, I also have an unquenchable adoration for the mountains; therefore the Pyrenees were everything that I wanted after my first month in Spain, when I began to crave the fresh mountain air as a respite from the daily 35 degrees Celsius weather in Valencia. Catering to this wish was a two hour hike on which the students embarked through a segment of the Camino de Santiago. This hike was the epitome of relaxed; no tour guide herded us like cattle – as often happens when we are guided through one museum or another – and we were allowed to take pictures with each other and of the views whenever we pleased. Even those who were not such enthusiasts of nature seemed to appreciate, at the very least, the social facet of this trek through the mountains. The subsequent day involved an activity that remains to be the most exciting of all the mandatory trips; even after four semesters abroad the white-watering rafting event still tops the charts. This highly interactive, thrilling-seeking voyage twisted through a ravine where high peaks silhouetted the sky above us. Every raft packed six people and an instructor, the latter all of whom were fun-loving jokesters who played tricks on us, such as pushing or pulling the students into the chilly water. All in all, Jaca was a huge success among both the staff and the students. Both events yielded tremendous views, especially the former, given that the portion of the Camino de Santiago that we hiked looked down on both France and Spain. We were fortunate to have such nice weather throughout the duration of our trip; aside from the occasional bluster of wind, the sun beamed down on us, rewarding our dedication to nature.

While Jaca proved to be the most interactive expedition, I was not at all disappointed with the subsequent programs trips. Each different location gave me a new perspective on Spain and a plethora of knowledge. I had the pleasure of travelling to Madrid and Barcelona twice. My most recent trip to Madrid was more satisfactory the second time around; there was no learning curve and thus I could use my free time more productively. I had so thoroughly enjoyed a mandatory visit to the National Archeology Museum during the first trip to Madrid that I returned on my own accord during the most recent visit. The program was considerate of the freshmen students such as myself and altered the schedule on both Madrid and Barcelona summer trips so that we would not be bored with information that we had already acquired in those cities.

We went instead to the controversial Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, which was both amazing and creepy. The unnerving aspect stemmed from the notion that this monument was more of a shrine to Francisco Franco and José Antonio than a commemoration of those who lost their lives during the Spanish Civil War. Nearly everyone whom I casually inquired about their opinion of the basilica stated simply that they thought it was “pretty cool.” Needless to say, when they discovered that thousands of political prisoners died during the construction of this site, their tune changed entirely. Fortunately, our professor was in our group to give an overview of the Valley of the Fallen after we walked around inside, which cleared up many of the students’ confusion regarding this structure.

The learning curve was dissolved for the trip to Barcelona as well, however, the large amount of students on the summer trip made the excursion seem more hectic and less relaxing compared to the more manageable number of students who attended the spring semester trip to Barcelona. In the spring, the events included the Dalí Museum in Figueras, a tour of La Sagrada Familia, the most spectacular creation on which I have ever laid eyes, and various other Antoni Gaudí conceptions, such as Park Güell. The Dalí Museum was interesting from the standpoint that Salvador Dalí created the gallery himself to portray a heavy amount of symbolism, play-on-words, and optical illusions. Thankfully, after the guided visit, we were allotted free time for lunch, for the duration of which I happily perused the entirety of the museum once more.

During the summer visit to Barcelona, instead of touring the Dalí Museum, the students were given an extremely thrilling tour of the Castillo de Sant Ferran, an olden day fort. At first, the idea of touring a citadel seemed mundane and pointless. As soon as we were handed hard hats and miner’s lights, however, our disposition brightened. Our tour guides helped us into rustic looking Jeeps and then drove us around the extensive dried-up moat in a fast, haphazard, and consequently exhilarating ride. While we might have needed the helmets for the Jeep jaunt, their purpose was elucidated when we entered the pitch black subversive tunnels that were put to use during various sieges throughout the ages. Additionally, we used our lights to traverse the underground spring water pathways in boats that barely fit through the corridors. In this way, the activity that day certainly was decent replacement for the Dalí Museum.

These trips around Spain were informative and entertaining, but, as I previously mentioned, it was relieving to unpack once more in Valencia after a busy week of travels. That being said, Valencia was not also the epitome of relaxing. During my spring semester in Valencia, I was lucky enough to participate in the largest, most unusual festival I have ever attended: Las Fallas. Aside from the massive amount of partying for which Las Fallas is known, I found the experience to be culturally eye-opening. This two week long event exposed me to the first Valencian language that I had heard. Up until this point, I had only seen Valencian written on signs throughout the city or in newspapers, but never spoken. On the night that Las Fallas commenced, I was confused and slightly peeved by my inability to understand the mayor of Valencia, Rita Barberá Nolla, as she addressed the city; I had thought that my comprehension of Spanish had improved after almost seven months of living in Spain! I quickly realized that she was speaking Valencian and turned to my native Valencia friend for translation. Ironically, he could barely comprehend her slurred words himself; apparently the mayor had overindulged in libations before the ceremony. Fortunately the subsequent encounters I had with Valencian language were much more enunciated and I was able to get a good feel for identifying the jargon, although I never came close to understanding what the falleros and falleras were saying. One of the most impressive aspects of Las Fallas, besides the Spaniards ability to party seemingly throughout all hours of the day and night, was the actual fallas, or constructions of elaborately painted satirical – and often explicit – statues themselves. I remain amazed and appalled that they were set ablaze at the end of Las Fallas, but certainly appreciative that I was able to see them in all their glory before La Cremà., the final day of Las Fallas. Admittedly, watching the fireworks which caught the fallas on fire was enthralling in and of itself, but it was the prospect of wasting both time, talent, and materials that did not appeal to me.

Although the walkways of Valencia during Fallas were often too crowded for my taste, with so many people out and about in the city, I was able to strengthen my cultural ties and understanding by mingling and sparking friendships with peoples of various nations, such as Slovenia, the Netherlands, and Spain, of course. While I hardly slept a wink during those two weeks, lost a bit of my hearing from the gunpowder mascletas, and ran for my life from the crazy firecracker borrachos, not only was Fallas worth it for the fun, but also the high intensity emotion during the celebration made me feel more of a part of Valencia than before. I even became so disillusioned with my sense of belonging amongst the Valencians that I found myself muttering angrily about the tourists who flooded the streets, even though, as a foreign student, I am a tourist in Spain as well.

When the sweet city of Valencia was not crowded with swards of visitors during Las Fallas, my favorite hangout spot was La Plaza de la Virgen. Even without knowing the history behind the cathedral, basilica, and government headquarters that surround this space, the bustling square is so aesthetically pleasing that one is almost obligated to stop, have a cool drink or a small bocadillo, or simply sit on the fountain’s ledge and take in the views. Another one of my preferred locations in all of Valencia is the ten kilometer stretch of the Jardín del Turia. This area was easily where I spent most of my time, be it to exercise, study, or simply take in the plant life and the people around me. Furthering the benefits of this elongated hub, whenever I am in the mood for the sand instead of the grass, I can use this river-turned-park as a simple and direct route to Valencia’s several stretches of beach, using the Valenbisí bike system, yet another aspect I find about this city that makes it seem so head and shoulders above other cities to which I have travelled.

Other locations of beauty include the vista from atop El Miguelete, the bell tower of Valencia’s cathedral. The 360 degree panorama is not only breathtaking but also mesmerizing, one can see every barrio, or neighborhood, of Valencia, every rooftop of any significant structure; the Torres de Quart and Torres de Serranos, the Mercado Central and Mestalla Stadium; from the mountains, past the City of Arts and Sciences, to the sea. Glancing down, people appear to be the size of ants and one can even see birds flying below. Truly, it is a bird’s eye view. Perchance it is the 207 stairs one has to climb to reach the top, or maybe it is simply the view; regardless, everyone who makes it to the top of the bell tower is breathless, be it literally or figuratively. All in all, my experience in Spain could be described as no other: sweeter than a Valencian orange.

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