¡Buenas tardes!…I write to you from the comfort of my bed this afternoon as I settle down for a little siesta. I feel that even after three weeks, I have not entirely recovered from jet lag. After reading a portion of the book “Maximizing Study Abroad”, I fear I never will. One student wrote “Living overseas is exhausting. There needs to be a chapter on naps.” This very valid comment was followed by several others from students saying similar things. Let me put it this way: at home in the US, you can get X number of things done in a day. Here, it’s probably less than 1/2X because things that were once simple are now difficult and exhausting. Your brain is in overdrive for most of your waking hours, so the minute you can crash, you just do. I usually make one goal for each day OTHER than going to school, and it can be a struggle even to accomplish that! It is getting better though. As I become more familiar with everything and more fluent in the language, my daily activities are becoming less of a struggle.
In my short time here thus far, I have made some observations about cultural differences. Some I had heard a bit about before I came here, and others were surprises. So here is my list of “wish I woulda known then what I know now!” (Prospective study abroad students–take notes!):
Watch your step! Or you might wind up with a smelly mess on your shoes. There seems to be no rules–customary or legal–concerning cleaning up after your dog’s doo-doo anywhere you go. You could be outside of a nice department store, and if that’s where your dog needs to go, no problem. Don’t worry about cleaning it up. Try to get him to go in the grass, but if it’s on the sidewalk, no worries. I’ve been lucky so far, but I have had many “ahhh crap!” moments when I realize I haven’t been paying attention to where I’m walking for awhile. One of these days it is going to happen.
On the same note, I’ve observed a couple other peculiarities with their relationship with man’s best friend. It seems that dogs with owners and dogs that are strays coexist in a 1-1 ratio. It’s often hard, however, to tell a stray from non-stray as most dogs here are so obedient they don’t need leashes. Many people “walk” their dogs without leashes, and astoundingly the dog will stay within a 10-foot radius of the owner at all times. Many dogs will even wait patiently outside of a store for their owner. What kind of puppy-training programs are they running here?? We should probably look into that.
What are you lookin’ at? How long are you comfortable with someone making eye contact with you? I’d guess maybe…3-4 seconds, unless they’re your significant other. People in Spain tend to make direct eye contact for a period much longer than most US Americans are comfortable with. If there was a world-wide staring contest, Spain would kick our butts. I’m unsure of how long people are actually staring at me because as a habit, I always look away after a second or two. I suppose part of the issue is that I look a bit different than them (although the brown eyes do help me to blend at least a little!) I’ll get used to it. I’ll probably get so used to it that I’ll make all of you uncomfortable with my extra-long eye contact upon my return!
Do I know you? It’s not rude to stare, but forget saying “hi” to someone you don’t know. I found this out the hard way. I smiled and said “Hola” to an old man on the street and he actually stopped, gave me a confused look and said “Ehhh, ¿te conozco? (Do I know you?)” I have now confirmed with one of the professors here that it is weird to say hi to someone just to be friendly. Next time I’ll just stare.
Hurry up and wait. Two things I am not: patient and timely. Both are things I’d like to improve upon, and this is definitely my chance. There is no “leaving at the last minute”, and “eating on the run” is seen as rude here. I’ve done both of those things almost daily for my entire college career. Here, you must plan ahead to be on time for public transportation, to allow LOTS of walking time, and often, to allow time to get lost and have to ask for directions. The other side of this is that you must get used to waiting….for…a….loooooong…tiiiime. The next bus doesn’t come for an hour? Hope you have a book. All of the stores are closed all afternoon for siesta? Hope you didn’t need anything right this minute. Spaniards often use this waiting time to socialize and relax. It will just take time for someone, such as myself, from an always-on-the-go culture to adjust to this pace.
¡Besame! It is customary for women to greet each other, and men to greet women with two “fake” cheek kisses, starting on the left side. They’re “fake” because you don’t actually plant a big wet one on their cheek (eeeew!), you just sort of brush cheeks on each side and make a small “muah” noise.
Burst my bubble. If you’ve been to Europe (especially Spain and France, as far as I know), you know that everything is pretty tight quarters. You get up-close-and-personal with cars, buses, buildings, and of course, other people. Being only 5’7″ and not particularly gordo, even I feel too large for this country sometimes. Spanish people are, on average, smaller than US Americans (both in height and, well, width!), but they are also more accustomed to bumpin’ elbows.
Keep the change. One of the most common questions when visiting any foreign country is in regards to their tipping policy. I have heard a broad range of hypotheses on Spain’s tipping policy: everything from “Tip just like we do in the US!” to “Tipping is considered an insult!” So needless to say, I had to do a little myth-busting. I perused several articles on the internets, and found that this About.com article was the most helpful. If you don’t care to read it, it basically just tells you that they’ll certainly accept a tip, but it is not at all customary to leave one, so you may as well save your euros for a rainy day.
These boots are made for walkin’...or at least they better be. My feet are killing me. I may be a gym rat, but I still have been no match for the havoc wreaked upon my feet here. I suppose it depends where you’re living, what the landscape is like, what your commute to school or work is like (in my case the mountains, steep, long commute)…but as a general rule, you will walk a whole lot more here than you would in the US. I already have 4 blisters, and my feet are becoming quite calloused. I’m going to have to ask my mom to send my Ped Egg.
I will write more soon about what I’ve been up to, however my intent with this blog is not for it to be a comprehensive diary of my daily activitys, per-say, but rather a chance for you to walk along with me through my cultural adjustments and observations. That being said, I invite you to view my newest album on Picasa, “Hike to Sopelana” in which you will find breathtaking photos of my cliffisde hike from here in Algorta-Getxo all the way to Sopelana, a beach/surf town further down the Basque Coast.
To my fellow North Dakotans: ¡Mantente abrigado! (Stay warm!)