James O'Connor '18

If you are considering studying abroad, I would advise you to take note of the little things that stand out in your foreign country.  It can be very tiring to be away from your home, and little things that would never occur to you might start creeping up on a mounting list of reasons why you silently long for the comfort of your own country.  That is not to say that you will overwhelmingly homesick, but you may start to miss certain things you did not even know made a difference. I was introduced to this feeling on a smaller scale when I little, going away to camp.  There I missed home because it was the familiar, but I knew that I was only a car drive away. At college, I am a flight away, but Massachusetts hardly feels as different from Chicago as Spain. Being abroad, I miss the obvious things a great deal, like my family, friends, and my own language, but there are also a number of things that one might not think would cause homesickness.
So here are some of the things that I miss, that you might not expect. For one thing, I miss not using an adapter on my phone and computer chargers. It might seem trivial, but constantly worrying about what charger you need to use can be wearing. Spain uses a different charger from America, which uses a different charger from the United Kingdom and Ireland. As you can imagine, traveling can be a hassle if you do not know which adapter to bring when making your way to a new country, and God forbid you forget the adapter on a trip, because not being able to charge your phone is an easy way to get lost. Furthermore, the constant presence of an adapter has started to bend and twist my American chargers.  What will break first, my charger or my temper?
I miss American dollars. It is fortunate that Euros and dollars are roughly equal in value, meaning the mental conversion is not that bad, though I must also consult currency values before withdrawing money, to make sure I am getting a good deal. Also, whenever I make a charge with my credit card, I am charged a foreign transaction fee, which can add up when purchasing flights. It will be nice to not have to factor that in when I return. Perhaps most trivial of all, but by far the most frustrating, is the fact that Euros do not fit in my wallet. Dollars fit perfectly, but I suppose my American wallet was not designed to fit European currency, which has bills that vary in size according to value. It can be quite frustrating when each of my bills are frayed and ruined on the edges because of this inconvenience.
Lastly, I miss the not having easy access to the little things I so often took for granted at Holy Cross. I need a stapler for my essay? Oh, I guess I need to wait until tomorrow to see if there is one at school. I need tape, scissors, or a three-hole punch? I better hope my host parents have them, because if not I am certainly out of luck. There is just no certainty that the things I will need for an assignment will be available, and I miss the ease of that access from Holy Cross. Along similar lines, printing papers can be complicated, as I do not want to use up all of my host parent’s ink and paper. Though these little problems are easy to overcome, and are obviously not the largest burden one can endure, they certainly take a toll on a person after many months. While frayed Euros and lack of tape are not reasons for me to wish for a speedy departure, there are some small reasons to look forward to reentering what now seems like a former life, with plentiful stocks staples and compatible outlets.

Last weekend was the famed Carnival season in La Coruña, Spain. My host parents had invited me to go skiing with them in Asturias that weekend, and I had accepted, but at the last minute it was revealed that I would miss a great deal of class if I went, so I reluctantly elected to stay behind. At first I was disappointed I wasn’t going to go with them, as I usually enjoy skiing a great deal, but that was before I realized that Carnival was such a big deal in Galicia. In America this time of the year goes by the name Mardi Gras, but in Galicia it is simply Carnival and it represents a time of celebration before the solemn days of lent. The festivals stretched for a much longer time than anything I was used to in the United States, where parties typically occur on designated days. But the festivities seemed virtually non-stop from Thursday night, February 23, until Tuesday morning, February, 28. There was some down time in between, so as to make sure no one died of exhaustion, but it was still a series of late nights unlike anything I have seen before.
As is tradition, the streets glowed with the lights to brighten the winter months. The Spanish people packed every corner of the city, every one of them wearing incredible costumes that would trick any outsider into believing it was October, 31. Playing along, I donned a red vest in to make myself look like Marty McFly, and to my surprise many of my Spanish friends recognized my costume immediately. In true Spanish fashion, the celebrations lasted through the night, and people of all ages had a great time. It was interesting how Carnival is more like our Halloween in the sense that people dress and act identically. On actual Halloween, people universally wore scary makeup and bloody clothes, but on Carnival people were goofy like we are used to. The best difference that I can draw between the two holidays, is that while Halloween only lasts that one night, Carnival almost spans an entire week. I think I might have been converted, maybe I can convince America to draw out Halloween for a week too.

Vincent:  “You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?”

Jules:  “What?”

Vincent:  “It’s the little differences.  I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s, it’s just there it’s a little different.”

Jules:  “Example?”

 

After spending the last several months in Spain, and having finally re-watched Pulp Fiction for the first time in several years, I can finally fully appreciate Vincent’s speech.  He is correct when he says that the funniest thing about Europe is the little differences.  He goes on to describe several examples that are indeed true.  In Spain they do drench their French fries in mayonnaise and they do serve beer in McDonalds, though I admit I was slightly disappointed to learn that a quarter pounder with cheese is simply directly translated to a cuarto de libra con queso (I mean, they do use the metric system here).

But there are many other things that are just somewhat different from American culture that I thought would be interesting to note.  First of all, lunch and dinner are switched.  Back home we tend to quickly rush through a small lunch, which is usually a sandwich and perhaps another snack, while dinner is a large meal.  In Spain, instead of eating their lunch at their desks at work, the people tend to go home to prepare a large meal. Their dinner often consists only of some bread and ham or eggs, and in my house it is always casually eaten in front of the TV.  Second, following the lunch is the famous siesta.  Most people who have never been to Spain have still heard of (and are probably jealous of) this cultural norm.  What people might not be aware of is its effect on business hours and city life.  Essentially, much of the city will shut down in the middle of the day, and as an American it was initially hard for me to understand that heading out after lunch is nearly impossible when stores close between the hours of 2:00-5:00 pm.  The effects of the siesta are definitely more profound in smaller towns than in Spain’s biggest cities.  Madrid tends to stay open though the day, but little Pamplona and Lugo became ghost towns half the time.  Lastly, in honor of today’s “huelga” (strike), there are certainly some major differences between the university life in Spain and the US.  Most Spanish college students attend public universities, often in their hometowns.  Where in the United States, colleges work to forge a sense of community, and have campuses that function as model towns, the Spain system could not be more different.  Students generally live at home, or in apartment in the city, and commute to school for classes.  School pride is virtually non-existent in comparison to the rah-rah culture of American universities.  The average annual cost of college in Spain is only about 1000 Euros, so at first it was hard to understand what exactly the strike was for.  According to one of my professors, they are striking because they want some changes that actually mirror the US university system, while according to my host parents, they believe the admission process should be less stringent (which is ironic because the protesters have already been accepted).  Though I never wanted to be a scab, Holy Cross has insisted that we attend our Spanish course this afternoon.  Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it could have been educational to engage in all moments of Spanish culture.

When I was learning early American history, before I was even in high school, I routinely heard the Americas referred to as the “New World.”  I don’t believe I ever truly appreciated the significance of that label until I began to study abroad.  Perhaps one of the greatest parts about Spain is the casual existence of hundreds to thousands of years of history literally beneath ones feet.  When I took a day trip to the small Galician city of Lugo, I was struck by the fact that the sidewalks I carelessly traversed were covering a hidden Roman city only a few feet beneath the surface.  Excavators frequently happen across new troves of underground streets, baths, and mosaics in Lugo.  Every twenty feet or so there would be a glass window replacing one of the heavy stone pieces of the sidewalk to create a view into a second city that lay beneath the new one.  Even inside the stores, such as Zara, there were glass openings right through the floors to show ancient mosaics or other art.  If it wasn’t pointed out to me by one of my Spanish friends, I might never have noticed, but he showed me incredible sections of uncovered Roman relics, including a bath tub that was built 2000 years ago, when Augustus Caesar himself conquered the little city.  In fact, looking through the windows, it was not hard to imagine the Roman emperor enjoying Lugo’s natural hot springs in the ornately carved bath.  Much more conspicuous than the hidden wonders below the streets, were the Roman walls that surrounded the city.  Built in the 3rd century, the tall stone fortifications stretch 2 kilometers around the old town.  I made the walk with my friend, and I couldn’t help but marvel at how such a small and unknown town like Lugo had such a historical treasure.  In fact, almost every small and unknown town in Spain has incredible historical items that are very easy for an American to be jealous of.  If America had even one cathedral that dated as far back as the one in Lugo (755 AD), it would be a national treasure.  Making the trip to the “Old World” has not yet ceased to amaze.

Dear “it,”
I never knew how much I would miss you until you were gone. Ever since I came to Spain I have felt that there was something missing. I mean, sure, Spanish has some very useful words. For example, the word gracioso has such a great way of meaning funny, cute and charming all at once. English doesn’t have words that always stack up to their Spanish counterparts, but when it comes to you, it, there’s nothing quite as good.
You have this ability to be totally neutral and mean everything or nothing whenever I need you to. The lo’s and la’s of Spain just can’t add up to your fluidity and accessibility. As I come closer to the end of this semester, I realize that I will be returning to the United States for a brief time, and I will see you once again. I hope you don’t forget how much fun we used to have together, and I hope you can forgive me for not talking with you for such a long time. But if we can move past that, it would make my day.
Love, your biggest fan

What does a typical Saturday afternoon look like in A Coruña, Spain?  I have spent some time thinking about this question, and I finally came to the conclusion that it boils down to three words, camarones, calamares, and café.  Just last weekend I woke up late on Saturday, as usual, I showered, ate a small breakfast, and then in no time, my host family was herding me out the door.  Almost every Saturday there is some grand family gathering, involving a larger than life lunch.  These weekend lunches are no laughing matter.  The moment I arrived at my host grandmother’s apartment I had three appetizers stuck onto my plate before I even had the chance to sit down.  There was a perfectly flaky empanada, wheat bread with olive oil, and a diverse plate of crackers and cheese.  Now that I am experienced in Spanish culture, I avoided the trap.  I politely ate bits of each, (perhaps a bit more of the empanada, because it is just unbelievably delicious), but then I steered clear of the bait.  About an hour later the real lunch had begun, and a course of camarones was brought to the table.  For those who do not know, camarones is Spanish for prawns, and they are a specialty of the Coruñian fishermen.  Eating them is a messy business, requiring a bit of work to crack each individual miniature shrimp out of its shell.  On my plate the pile of shells steadily grew with each one I ate, but there was nothing I could do to match the natives, who ate their camarones like popcorn, and quickly grew their piles into small mountains.  The camarones were followed by courses of vegetables (which I cannot say I ate).  After the vegetables was a very interesting dish of calamares.  The Spanish word calamares is very similar to the English word calamari, but the way they served squid was quite different from what I was used to.  The head of the squid was laid on my plate, looking very much like I imagine it looked when alive.  I cut it open, and inside they had stuffed it with its own tentacles.  I ate the whole thing, albeit a bit cautiously, but it was definitely a nice tasting dish.  Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat anymore, it was time for dessert.  I had seen the cook in the kitchen preparing the frisuelos, a kind of creme filled Spanish crepe, but I did not see that she had also bought two boxes of other cake treats.  I was slightly overwhelmed, because my host family continually dropped pieces of these desserts on my plate, even though I tried to explain to them I was full about two courses ago.  Finally, when all the food was taken away, and everyone in the room had a distinctly sleepy look about them, the last item on that day’s itinerary was brought out, a welcome pot of Spanish coffee.  We sat around the table and talked for a while in Spanish while enjoying the café.  So there it is, a Spanish Saturday lunch, as told through the three c’s of Coruña, camarones, calamares, and café.

It is stunning how much a country’s culture can shift, even when you only fly an hour and a half away.  Last weekend, the Holy Cross A Coruña study abroad students headed south to two cities to experience the Andalucían culture.  Our first stop was Granada, which had one of the most impressive man made constructions on earth.  We spent over five hours in the castle that is over one thousand years old, known as the Alhambra.  The Alhambra is famous for being the final Moorish stronghold in Spain, lasting until 1492 (directly related to Christopher Columbus’s 1492).  It was even listed as a finalist among the Seven Wonders of the World, and once I set foot in it I could easily see why.  The palace was enormous.  There was so much to see that I cannot possibly recount it all, but here are some highlights:  The ceilings were ornate with designs of incredible mathematical precision, the staircases and gardens were laden with little canals that carried water down the mountain under the steps that we walked on, and from the top of the highest tower, I could see the entirety of Granada from the ancient platform.

The next stop we made on our trip was to Seville, with sights that equaled Granada, and we were exposed to even more Andalucían culture.  From the incredible pork to the distinct accents of their people, Seville was brilliant.  We enjoyed touring the most famous bull fighting ring in Spain, the third largest Cathedral in the world, and a breathtaking flamenco performance.  Each day that we were on the trip was filled with some of the most impressive sights I have seen in my life, but even with so many things to do, the voyage was only made better by going with the great group of Holy Cross students.  When we were not left breathless in certain moments, like when we saw the tomb of Christopher Columbus, we were laughing and growing closer together as friends.  We would experience the night life with other travelers and local Spaniards, or we would laugh at ridiculous dub step remixes to various songs.  This trip was indispensable for anyone who wishes to get to know the entirety of Spain, and I believe it was pivotal in creating long lasting friendships as well.

“There’s nothing to do in Vigo.”  In the weeks leading up to going to the Galician city of Vigo, I was told time and time again by the natives that while Vigo is a perfectly nice city, there is not much to do.  I took them at their word, as I had never visited it before, but still I was intent to go.  And last weekend I was finally granted my wish.  The cousins of my host family are from Vigo, and they decided that since they were going to be traveling, they could take me with them, and I happily accepted their offer.

It is remarkable that a city such as Vigo can be considered boring, because as our car made it past an obscuring mountain and allowed for my first sight of the city I was struck by its beauty.  “A Spanish San Francisco” my Host Uncle pronounced proudly.  And indeed I could see what he meant, especially when we began to cross their version of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Like San Francisco, Vigo is etched into the hills.  It sits against the water, curving around a muscling bay with a port that houses some of the world’s largest transatlantic ships.

Vigo is the largest city in Galicia and when we arrived, my guide and friend Pelle, told me that the hills made it very difficult to traverse.  And after only a short time of walking up and down, I found that he was right.  But still I was shocked that they considered Vigo to be a boring town, because everywhere we went was something interesting, starting with the old city pubs, where we enjoyed tapas in incredible stone buildings.  Later, we walked to the port and the view of the water was incredible.  In the distance I could see Vigo’s most attractive site, the island of Cies, a national park with globally ranked beaches.  Although this time I did not get the chance to visit the island, that is only one more reason to go back to such a wonderful city.

A Coruña is a port city.  It rests on a small peninsula in the north of Spain that somehow affords an almost uniquely splendid climate.  In the summer the weather hovers in the 70s, while in the winter, it rarely goes below 50.  Such a blessing of warm temperatures on the land is only offset by the frigid temperatures of the surrounding water.  I have taken every opportunity to go the beach since I arrived in this city.  It’s really not hard to do, because everyone wants to take advantage of the beach weather while it lasts.  However, I have learned an interesting aspect of Spanish culture:  it is considered poor form to go to the beach without fully submerging yourself in the water.  Typically, when I go to the beach and the water is freezing, I prefer to stay on the sand.  Regardless, my host family insists that it is a necessity to enter the water.  They have told me many times that even half-measures are unacceptable, meaning that one must dunk their head under the waves, and if they do not, they must go back to the water.  Therefore, I grit my teeth and run into the water each time I show up at the beach.  Sometimes I get used to the temperature, but more often than not I race back to the warmth of the sand.  I cannot say this is my favorite Spanish tradition I have encountered so far, but at the very least it’s almost October and I can still go for a swim.

I went to the beach a few days ago and it was picture perfect.  The sun was shining, but not too brightly, and it was warm, but not too hot.  Almost the entire group of Holy Cross students found a nice piece of sand to enjoy in the late hours of the afternoon.  But when the sun started to go down, it was time to leave, so we packed up.  We started on the walk back to the main part of the city, but we came to a crossroads.  I waved goodbye to my friends as they turned into the city.  For the most part, their homes are a bit separated from mine, so I thought I could find a shortcut.  I made my alone down a street I thought was familiar, but of course I was wrong.  It was starting to get dark and I realized I made a mistake.  Coruna is not a complicated city.  It sits on a peninsula, and the apartment I am staying in is by one side of the water and the beach I went to was on the other.  Therefore, I thought, as long as I kept walking straight, I was sure to reach the other side of the peninsula.  So I walked, but I lost my bearings, and pretty soon I didn’t know which direction would lead me to the other side of the water.  One wrong turn led to another, and I felt slightly uneasy as I noticed that the buildings became considerably more deteriorated with block I walked.  Coruna is also known for being a very safe city, but I admit that several rows of abandoned apartment complexes with broken windows were enough to make me pick up my pace.   After about 25 minutes into this area, an old man stopped me by his rusty old car pleading for help.  In Spanish, he told me that he couldn’t open his car door, and after a closer look I saw that his key was stuck in the lock.  I did not want to take attention off of my surroundings, but I tried to fix the key to no avail.  I apologized to the man, and then I walked off.  Finally, after another stretch of time, I found a street that I recognized, and I was able to go home.  I have often heard the maxim that getting lost in a city is good thing.  I always thought that was true, but now I know better.  Getting lost can lead to some exciting new experiences, or it can simply be a stressful waste of time.  Hopefully I get lost again sometime soon, and I can find an exciting new street, or at the very least find unlock that man’s door.

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James O'Connor '18

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