Week 2: Little Steps (posted by Kati In Spain)

September 4, 2012

This week has been focused on the administrative details of moving to Spain and matriculating in a university that has procedures and customs that are very different from those that I am used to. It has been a long week of ups and downs, and although Monday was a rocky start, Sunday was a perfect finish.

Ninety days before leaving for Spain I applied for a yearlong student visa via the Boston Spanish Consulate, following their directions to a T. After eight weeks of waiting, I was told that the Consulate is no longer permitted to grant yearlong student visas and that I would have to apply for residency at the local police station within thirty days of arriving in Spain, or else I would be deported. I waited a week after arriving to begin my residency application, as the director of my orientation program, the person I was told to ask for help, was on vacation until Monday. First thing Monday morning I went to the Cursos Internacionales Office to ask Carmen for guidance. She patiently explained to me her understanding of the application process, and she gave me directions to the police station. Colleen, my unconditionally supportive roommate, accompanied me.

By the time we arrived at the station it was one o’clock in the afternoon, and after being loudly hissed at and thoroughly evaluated by the male officers standing outside of the station, we were told that we would not be helped today and that we must come back early tomorrow. Feeling slightly dispirited, we continued with Carmen’s directions and made our way to the University’s International Relations Office, where my thoroughly confused advisor told me that I must have done something quite wrong on my original visa application and that I needed to fly to Madrid to speak with the U.S. embassy and bring her a written explanation as to why I did not have the correct visa. Thankfully, Michele Cox, the head of Richmond’s Study Abroad Office, was able to help me determine the best course of action, and so I returned to the police station early Tuesday morning.

My experience on Tuesday was much better than the treatment I received on Monday. The man who helped me sported a grey Canada T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and upon realizing that I hail from Boston, he immediately started talking about the Celtics, the Red Sox, and thick Boston accents. He gently told me that my application was not complete because I did not have my permanent Spanish address yet, that I needed additional photos, and that he had to add me to a deportation watch list until we could proceed with my application. Wednesday saw me back at the International Relations Office begging for my final address, and Thursday saw me modeling for an overly enthusiastic photographer as she snapped visa headshots from every angle possible. Finally, on Friday, I returned to the police station armed with a folder of paperwork and pictures, and Sarah, a USC graduate, accompanied me to help smooth the process. The same kind man helped me again, and after waiting in line, filling out more forms, traveling to the bank for a money order, waiting in line again, and finally being seen, I was told that I could return to the station in forty days to retrieve my extended visa. Halleluiah!

Despite missing several hours of class to deal with my visa, I successfully graduated from the Cursos Internacionales intensive immersion program on Friday. It feels strange that I will not be in class with my wonderful professor Juan or my new friends again! Although my grammar did not improve very much through the course, my speaking ability and my knowledge of Spanish culture and daily life improved at lot, and I am so glad that I took the class. On Wednesday I took a placement test for another intensive immersion course that begins in October, and I have high expectations for my experience!

Also dotted throughout this week have been preparations for class registration. Class registration for international students is an arduous process that is not well understood by anyone and is confusing for everyone. As with any university, the student peruses the rich course catalog and creates a list of classes that are of interest to her and fit with her major areas of study. She then emails and receives an almost immediate response from the heads of each relevant University of Richmond department to make sure that she will be able to transfer credit from the classes she is interested in back to Richmond. The student spends a few hours arranging various possible schedules with different combinations of the classes that she might like to take, and then she pursues a meeting with her academic coordinator at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

But this is where it gets tricky: international students are not assigned an academic coordinator. The student must select a home faculty even though she is taking courses across various faculties, ask the International Relations Office staff to craft her a new acceptance letter so that professors will allow her to take classes in multiple faculties, email the faculty secretaries repeatedly over the course of a week until she finally gets a response, schedule an appointment with the coordinator of each faculty, trek all over the city for appointments with each coordinator, and then beg each coordinator to answer her questions about class schedules, the language of instruction, final exams, and the class registration process, which is different for every faculty and not at all self-explanatory. Finally, with signed learning contracts, final acceptance letters, and certificates of matriculation, the student may finally register for her classes, receive a student ID card, and gain access to the Internet in the dormitory. Needless to say, I cannot wait to be done with this process and registered for the classes that I am so excited to take!

Keeping me well fed and sane as I wade my way though these processes is Pepita, my incredible host mother. Every day has begun with a piping hot cup of English tea, toast, various yogurts, and fruit, and every evening has concluded with an overwhelming amount of delicious food and an hour or two of Spanish TV game shows. After receiving my final address and dorm room number on Wednesday, Colleen and I wandered over to the residence hall to see if we could see our rooms. Unfortunately, my room was occupied by a summer student, but after much negotiating and pleading, the man behind the desk finally agreed to show us a room. We have certainly been spoiled by the wonderful dorms at Richmond, and the stark nature of these rooms made that clear. After much deliberation and conversations with all parties involved, Colleen and I asked if it would be possible for us to remain with Pepita for the rest of the semester. Sadly, after some tense last minute negotiating, it was determined that we have to relocate to the dorm or lose all of our housing deposit. We will really miss Pepita, her grandchildren, and her wonderful cooking and caring smiles, but upon hearing the news she made us promise to visit her, and as she hugged us and patted our backs she told us that we are always welcome in her home. Even though it is sad to leave Pepita, I know that we will have an equally beneficial cultural experience by living in the dorms and by participating in the many clubs, sports programs, and social events that are planned through the residence halls, and I am looking forward to meeting even more people my age!

One of the social resources Colleen and I have taken advantage of is the ERASMUS program. ERASMUS is a student-run social and academic resource for exchange students at universities across Europe. By joining ERASMUS Colleen and I have gained access to uniquely discounted trips to important places around Spain, specially organized group outings for tapas around the city, tours of Santiago in both English and Spanish, and to the buddy program, which has partnered us with a current USC student who will help us navigate the university and the city and answer any questions we might have. Plus we get a fancy ID card…how could we pass up that opportunity?

Saturday at the food market in Santiago, fruits and vegetables

Saturday at the food market in Santiago

On Saturday we spent the morning at an amazing open-air food market in Santiago, and we concluded our week with a perfectly lazy day on a beautiful beach in A Coruña, a city located a short train ride north of Santiago. We spent the morning walking along the port and the city coast from the train station to the Plaza de Maria Pita observing the gorgeous architecture and the beautiful coast. We ate lunch at a little Mexican restaurant that was the best bang for your buck in town, and the owner was so excited to have Americans in his restaurant because he believed that we could better identify with his experiences with violence and the drug trafficking in Mexico than could the Spanish. After lunch we continued on to the Tower of Hercules. The Ancient Romans built the tower almost 2000 years ago, and it is one of the oldest lighthouses in the world.

A picture at the A Coruña coast, a gorgeous view of the sea

Kati at the A Coruña coast

From the base of the tower we got an incredible view of the city and the coast, and then we continued on to a lovely little beach that is obviously a favorite of the locals. After a few hours of relaxing in the sand, refreshing ourselves in the water, and catching up on some sleep we wandered over to a little ice cream shop before catching the bus back to the train station. We all tried turrón ice cream, which tastes like almondy burnt sugar ice cream – so delicious! A sunny day with friends, ice cream, and ocean water was the perfect anecdote to a hectic week.

A perfect Sunday at the beach in Spain

A perfect Sunday

Quote of the Week: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day and you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


Week 1: Aprovechar: to take full advantage of (posted by Kati in Spain)

August 28, 2012

An announcement over the plane’s loudspeaker wakes me from my comatose state, “…flying south to Santiago. We will arrive in approximately one hour. The temperature at our destination is 27 degrees.”

Flying south? Santiago de Compostela is north of Madrid. I look out the window and see tan hills dotted with little green bushes, not the rolling green hills of Galicia that I was hoping to see. Panicking, I yank my overstuffed backpack free from under the seat in front of me and begin to excavate for one – any – of my three guidebooks. I find maps of Spain in all of them, but none of them have Santiago labeled. I open the airplane magazine to find a flight map, and my panic subsides as I see that Santiago de Compostela is the only Santiago that Iberia Airlines flies to from Madrid. I am on the right flight; the pilot must have misspoken. Whew.

A short hour later we descend through fluffy white clouds, soaring over the greenest countryside I have ever seen. After collecting my bags, I push my trolley out into the soft, fresh Galician air. After hours of travel, I am finally here.

PIcture out of window flying over Santiago de Compostela

Flying into Santiago de Compostela

A cabbie rolls his little white car forward to meet me. He is rocking a plaid flannel shirt, black Ray Bans, black skinny jeans, a graying mustache and matching hair, and a cigarette, which he promptly puts out. His accent rolls and lilts like the road we drive towards Santiago. His pronunciation reminds me of an Irish brogue just as the Galician song on the radio reminds me of Celtic music I have heard at home.

The cabbie drops me off outside of a heavy glass and iron door squeezed between an oriental clothing shop and what looks like a garage entrance. I ring the bell, and after a minute an older woman with brownish-red hair and a sweater draped over her shoulders carefully makes her way down a flight of stairs into the apartment lobby. With a big smile that crinkles her eyes, Pepita opens the heavy door and bustles me and my bags inside.

The apartment is spacious and filled with natural light. The floors are beautifully constructed from cherry wood, and although upon first inspection the kitchen appears to be in disarray, I quickly learn that everything has its place and its purpose. I am shown from my bedroom to the kitchen where Pepita has prepared a Spanish tortilla. It’s a solid disk the size of a frying pan created from eggs, milk, potatoes, and onions. Without pausing for breath in her story about an adventure she had in an airport, Pepita flips the whole tortilla onto a plate and sets it in front of me. Forty-five minutes later when I have only managed to eat half of it, she cuts me another quarter and insists that I finish.

Pepita reminds me a lot of my own grandmother. She is kind and gentle beyond words, but she is a force to be reckoned with. She is a teacher/administrator at a local high school, and she is full of stories and life lessons. Five minutes after welcoming me into her home, Pepita quizzed me on my beliefs about abortion, dating, and children, and she proceeded to tell me that no one, absolutely no one, should have children before they are thirty years old. In the mornings, Pepita serves me “English” tea: I am of British descent, and so I should, therefore, prefer English tea. She is always finding ways to make me more comfortable and more at home.

Colleen, a fellow Richmonder and my roommate for our two-week orientation period, arrived on Sunday. She is lovely and just as excited to be in Spain as I am. We are extremely similar, which makes living together an absolute pleasure. Our adventures are always full of laughs, and no day is complete without a somewhat uncomfortable cultural learning experience.

We have the best teacher, Juan, for our intensive Spanish immersion class. In class we practice grammar with exercises such as interviewing fictional characters, solving murder mysteries, writing fake roommate adds, completing TV scripts, and debating current events. We also learn how to imitate Spanish spoken with a thick French accent, the difference between tortas and pasteles, the best beaches in Galicia, and what not to miss in Santiago.

Traditional Santiago almond cake, the Torta de Santiago

Smiles all around after two big bites into the Torta de Santiago

In addition to our academic orientation, Colleen and I are orienting ourselves to daily life in Santiago. We spend part of every afternoon and every evening after dinner wandering the stone streets of the city, and we discover little treasures during our walks. We have fallen in love with the Torta de Santiago, which is essentially almond pound cake with powdered sugar. We have compared prices, quality, and quantity of food in supermarkets around the city. We have investigated the rates of different mobile phone companies and compared packages. We have spent time in bookshops, bakeries, little corner stores, oriental markets, parks, culture centers, and art museums. We have gone to mass, attempted Galician dancing, and toured the buildings of the university (University of Santiago de Compostela (USC)). We have experienced Santiago nightlife (until 5:30am, which is considered early!) under the protective wing of Antonio, Pepita’s son and father of two. We have become friends with students from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Italy, and South Korea, and we cannot wait for the 40,000 full-time university students to arrive on campus.

Dressed in traditional wear for a Galician dance and music class

Kati dressed in traditional wear for a Galician dance and music class

The past seven days have been a wonderful introduction to life in Spain, and I am so happy to be here.

Quote of the Week: “The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.” ~Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture)


Kati In Spain: An Introduction (posted by Kati in Spain)

August 20, 2012

Even though I am sitting in the Madrid airport watching planes and people come and go, I still can’t really believe that I am officially studying abroad. I have wanted to study abroad ever since I knew that such an option existed, and what better place to improve my Spanish and experience a wide variety of cultures than Spain. Settling on a city, however, was a more difficult decision. I chose Santiago de Compostela because it is an uncommon destination for most English-speakers, and one of my goals for this semester is deep linguistic and cultural immersion. Further, the University of Santiago de Compostela is one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Spain, and it has renowned departments of Psychology and Spanish Philology and Literature, which are my areas of major study. Judging by the smiles, the nods of approval, and the words of happy surprise Spaniards have offered in response to my decision, I think I have made a good choice.

I know that the next 126 days are going to be some of the most memorable days of my life, and I am certainly off to a good start! The young woman who checked my bags in Boston and I have friends in common, and she kindly gave me a free pass to the Iberia VIP lounge to wait for my flight. On the plane to Madrid, I was fortunate enough to sit next to a kind Spaniard who has been completing her post-doctorate at Boston University, and she offered me invaluable advice on moving to Spain in addition to coaching me on a few Spanish colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions. And as I have been sitting here in the Madrid airport, I have met a gentleman from Majorca (a Spanish island in the Mediterranean) who is traveling to San Francisco, and we have swapped travel tips and touristy information about our respective destinations. And I haven’t even arrived at Santiago de Compostela yet!

It’s hard to believe all of the steps that it has taken to get me to this seat in the Madrid airport. Tentative planning, preliminary applications, meetings, course approval forms, letters of intent, final applications, academic contracts, housing questionnaires, more meetings, Spanish fluency-level placement tests, dorm-room reservations, visa applications, host family introductions, money transfers, booking flights, buying luggage, opening bank accounts, writing letters, coordinating phone plans, packing, researching, running errands, stressing, repacking, see-you-laters, lots of hugs, and, finally, getting on the plane. I would not be sitting in this seat without the unwavering support of many, many people. Thank you all for believing in me and for allowing me this opportunity.

Quote of the week: “Every man dies. Not every man lives.” -Tim Robbins


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