Hola from Spain! I almost can’t believe that I’ve already been living in Alicante for three weeks. The time passes so quickly as I absorb all the sights and smells and sounds of the city, noting the differences and similarities between my usual context and my new home in Spain. Through stepping outside of my usual context in the upper left corner of the USA, I have not only begun to learn about a different culture and people and place, but I have also begun to understand my own, to hold up a mirror and a magnifying glass at the same time.
After a five-hour flight from Seattle to Philadelphia and another seven-hour flight from Philadelphia to Madrid, I slumped into a chair to wait for my final flight to Alicante. I felt a light tap on my shoe, and looked up from my Lonely Planet Spain guide book (which immediately tags me as a tourist, but it is also immensely helpful – I have no regrets) to see an electric blue race car that had rolled its way across the hallway to greet me. I met eyes with a mom and her two young kids and after receiving a nod of permission, I rolled the little vehicle back to its laughing owners. As we launched the little blue car back and forth with different sounds effects and laughter it felt like a perfect welcome into the country that will be my home for the next four months.
The CIEE students united in Alicante, most exhausted from several legs of travel, some missing luggage, and others missing altogether due to storms in New York, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. We boarded the bus to our orientation site, all bundles of nervous energy exchanging chatter: What’s your name? Where are you from? Where do you go to school? What’s your major? What classes are you taking here? Why did you choose to come to Alicante? Of all the answers to the last question, the most popular answer seemed to be a desire for Spanish language acquisition. The second most popular may have been the beach, and the third was the food.
The bus ride from the airport to our orientation site showed me that I was most certainly not in Walla Walla or Burien, Washington anymore. In the city of Alicante, palm trees line the streets and the branches of orange trees hang heavy with fruit. The land is dry and rocky, with hues of red and orange. Times like these I always wish I had taken a geology class. Being unfamiliar with the terrain adds another level of dissociation that had me wishing I had purchased a field guide to the region of Valencia. I’m sure this is only the first of many experiences of surprise at the unfamiliar and unknown.
The liberal arts program in Alicante consists of several major facets: the classroom, regional excursions, cultural activities, and perhaps most importantly, the host family. After two days of orientation on academics, safety, and cultural sessions, we met our host families for the first time. We were called one at a time from the classroom where we were waiting anxiously, hoping that we remembered the correct greetings, especially los besos. One of the first things to notice about Spanish culture in Alicante is the extroverted expression of affection for friends, family, and loved ones. In meeting my Spanish host mom, our first exchange were two kisses on the cheek: first to the left, and then to the right. It’s important to remember which side comes first.
Before arriving in Spain, I hadn’t spoken conversational Spanish in almost 6 months – so I was pretty nervous to make a sudden switch to Speaking Spanish in my home, in the classroom, in the street, and with other students. Spanish of the Iberian Peninsula contains several accents, dialects, and languages: Andalusian, Castellano, Valenciano, and Catalan to name a few. By the third week I feel I can more confidently identify them when I hear them, but the first couple days were certainly overwhelming. My host mom, Maria, and I communicate solely in Spanish. These conversations over plentiful, delicious lunches have been the best methods for improving my language skills, learning new vocabulary for expressing my thoughts, asking questions, as well as building a relationship with my Spanish mama.
We finished our 2-week language intensive cycle last week, which was a grammar wave of grammar consisting of 45 hours of class, a midterm, homework, and a final. Content courses for the liberal arts track begin this week, and will be conducted entirely in Spanish. In the first couple weeks, I have already noticed an increased ability and confidence in my language usage. The next four months will bring plenty of challenges and exciting new experiences. My next couple posts will cover the host family experience, Spanish food and social culture, and adventures to local sites around Alicante.