It’s going to be hard condensing my first three weeks of studying abroad in Madrid, Spain, but the best way I can summarize it all up is with these three words: vibrant, challenging, and inspirational.
Madrid is one of those cities that make people never want to leave. It’s a city that fills all of your senses, leaving you almost breathless with wonder and excitement. From the colorful buildings in the central plaza, to the smell of fresh bread in bakeries on every corner, I still walk around pinching myself sometimes.
One of my favorite things to do actually is to just wander the streets of Madrid until my feet are too tired to take another step. I am lucky enough to live right in the heart of the capital, in a neighborhood called Sol, which gives me access to 4 or 5 different subway lines. And even if I didn’t want to venture far, there is always something going on in Sol. Vendors arrange colorful purses and scarves on the street, musicians play lively tunes on their Spanish guitars, and promoters eagerly summon passersby to check out their restaurants, bars, and clubs.
I’ve tried to do something a little different every week to maximize my time here. Thanks to international programs set up by my school and my own motivation, I’ve been able to attend a variety of events, including watching a flamenco show, learning how to cook a traditional Paella meal, and my new personal favorite: practicing Spanish with other international students in a “Language Café.”
Speaking of improving my Spanish, I would have to say that one of the most difficult things that I’ve encountered while living here is obviously, the language barrier. Even though I took classes throughout high school, I stopped studying Spanish in college. I wish with all my heart that I hadn’t taken the easy way out these past few years, but I’m thankful I have a second chance at re-learning a language I really do love.
While there are definitely times of frustration when people talk too fast or give me confused looks because of my thick American accent, I’ve built up my confidence over time to be able to look people in the eye when I speak. This at least gives off the impression that I am not only willing to communicate, but capable of it. The only frustrating part is sometimes people don’t even give me the opportunity to practice Spanish because of the way I look. They take one glance at me, and based on my outward appearance, they assume I can’t say a word of their native tongue.
Another challenge I didn’t really anticipate was how confused and lost I would be. Not even in the literal sense, but more in terms of how I’ve been coping with my new surroundings and finding my niche. Everyone talks about how studying abroad is life-changing and eye-opening, but no one really mentions the daunting obstacles that come with starting a new life in a new place. You have to find your own apartment, figure out where grocery stores are, learn to navigate the transportation system, work with a budget, and adjust to a new school system.
There are also so many little things that are done differently in a new country that you have to adjust to. In Spain, you can’t just pick up a fruit or vegetable with your hand—you have to get an employee to fetch it for you with a sanitary glove. And after you throw your clothes in the washer, you better have a place to hang them up because dryers aren’t really common in apartments. Even though these things seem pretty trivial, they are details people don’t really warn you about, but you will eventually have to figure it out all on your own.
And finally, there’s this sense of identity crisis as you’re trying to settle down in a new city. For me, the hardest part has been living so far away from friends and family back home that I can’t keep tabs on their lives and vice versa. I’m losing touch with them because of time differences and busy schedules, and I often catch myself wondering things like, “Am I missing out? Have they forgotten me?”
Though I’m not exactly homesick, I do recognize that human interaction is important during this time of transition and adjustment, and I’ve made it a goal to meet at least one new person every day.
This brings me to my last and most important point: studying abroad is one of the most inspirational things a twenty-year-old can do.
Every day, I meet new, interesting people who remind me how vast and beautiful the world is. I’ve come across young adults from every continent by now, and each one has taught me something new. Even a topic as mundane as weather can turn into a lively discussion about how differently we cope with rain and snow, and heat and humidity. Yet at the same time, it’s always mind-boggling to me that people all across the world lead very different lives from mine, but they share the same hobbies and interests, questions and concerns, hopes and dreams that I do.
But the best part is being surrounded by diverse people inspires me to be better. I know it sounds cliché to pursue self-improvement while I’m studying abroad, but there are so many things I want to do to make myself stronger, smarter, kinder, and happier while I’m here.
The truth is when you are always around people who are similar to you, you can get complacent. You stop challenging yourself. But here I am in Spain, and I’m constantly around classmates who speak 4 or more languages. I’m having intellectual debates with people about the effectiveness of governmental systems in different countries. And most importantly, I’m learning the way others think.
All of this is so very inspiring and it has helped me create 3 personal goals for the semester:
1) Speak Spanish without hesitation.
2) Become brave and independent enough to travel alone.
3) Fall in love with myself and become my own best friend.
Vibrant, challenging, and inspirational—thank you, Spain, for kicking off my journey abroad with so much promise for a successful semester. Can’t wait for more!
Alina Tang will graduate from USC in 2016. She is majoring in business administration and plans to work in the Management Development Program at Mondelez International and gain more experience in global marketing.