ZOË SULLIVAN-BLUM- After all of my initial thoughts on where to study abroad, the decision to go to Spain felt safe. I study Anthropology, and I had fancied Morocco as my study abroad destination for a few months before realizing that it probably wasn’t the best fit after all. My Spanish minor wouldn’t be very useful there, nor would my utter lack of experience with Arabic or French. I looked more closely at the Tufts-Skidmore in Spain Program, and after learning more about it, I was hooked. Still exciting, and more comfortable somehow. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, I told myself, You do that and then you regret it. Keep it comfortable. So off I went, elated with my ability to control my overly-confident-when-it-comes-to-adapting tendencies, growing increasingly excited for Madrid, for Europe, for Spain. I figured it would feel familiar, even amidst the new experiences I was sure to have. It’s the Western World. It’s a city. Different in some ways sure, but nothing I wouldn’t be expecting. This will be an amazing opportunity to study in a place that will give me new and exciting opportunities without having too many difficulties adapting, I thought. I was confident, I was prepared. Sure I had some nerves, but overall I knew I would be feeling right at home in no time.
I realize now that I was naive.
Nothing of what I was thinking prior to arriving in Madrid could have prepared my wide-eyed little American self for the vibrantly different world in which I landed. Yes there are more similarities than not, we are all just people after all. But I was prepared for the similarities. Not so much for the differences.
In many ways the process of integrating into life in Madrid has been difficult for me. I ended up switching host families, which not only caused stress during the moving process, but also forced me to find my way around a whole new neighborhood just after I had begun to get used to the first. It is true that once I landed with my new family the little stressors didn’t feel quite as massive, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t still things I had to figure out and things I had to deal with. Being sick for the first time in Spain for instance, or figuring out the Metro system. More than anything, it’s been a struggle just to figure out how to exist in a city (especially one in which my native language is not the most common). I am from a fairly rural area, one in which we drive to get to a place that’s a mile away, one where I run into at least 5 people I know every time I make a quick trip to Wegman’s, one in which my face and my name are known. Although there are things that distance me from my neighbors, I generally exist in a world of total and familiar locality.
It was this shift in the feeling of belonging that jolted my unsuspecting senses from the moment I stepped off the plane. Part of it is that Madrid is a city, whereas I am used to a small town, but the majority of what fractured my sense of belonging was the fact that, as much as I hadn’t fully understood what that meant before, Spain is a different country. It’s part of a different continent, located across an ocean almost 4,000 miles away from my small town. Spain has a long and complex history as a country that my freshly birthed federal republic cannot even begin to understand. It has different politics, different sidewalk protocol, different customs, different health care systems and different educational practices. As a young, liberal woman I find many of these differences incredibly refreshing, especially as we face the upcoming presidential elections in the US. And yet, although the differences are ones that excite me, puzzle me, enchant me, and challenge me, the extent to which I have felt them can’t be glossed over. I have already learned in my short month in Spain that it doesn’t do any good to pretend that the differences aren’t there. Obviously it also does no good to focus entirely on the differences or on negative experiences, but I think that we often forget to let ourselves acknowledge that living in a different place is a big deal.
I say I was naive not because I necessarily wish I had somehow prepared differently, but because the extent to which I am now able to be this self-reflexive in just 4 weeks is astounding. Yet some of the aspects of acclimation here have been tough. But it’s important to acknowledge it all. In fact, it’s that challenge and that grittiness that has enabled me to see all of the beauty in what I am experiencing here. Travel has always been important in my family, and I got it, more or less. Well, now I really understand.
It’s funny how it took traveling across an ocean to another “similar Western country” to see just how not similar different parts of the world are and how wonderful that is. Somehow, it is these differences that make us all seem more similar in the end, uniting us in the common space of diversified experience. I am so excited to keep learning more.