Somewhere in the Sky

The following was written on my nine hour flight home, April 7th 2018. Somewhere in the sky between Barcelona, Spain and Newark, New Jersey.

 

I wasn’t sure if I would cry but I’m not surprised that I did. Saying goodbye to the close and inexplicable friendships I’ve made was one thing, but saying goodbye to the new normal I created was another. Throughout the semester, whenever we were deciding to do something or spend money or anything of that sort I kept telling myself: “You’re only going to be young, dumb, and in Barcelona once in your life. Every other time you’ll only be two of the three.”

I find comfort in that. But it’s also funny because if WHEN(!) I come back to Barcelona it’ll be a different Barcelona and I’ll be a different Alexis. Not completely, but to an extent. I think there’s so much pressure on students that go abroad to have this hugely insane life-changing experience. Which, yes, it changes you in some ways. But I think more so studying abroad should just solidify or emphasize things you already know about yourself. I had a good sense of self before getting on that plane back in January, but I think I’ve come to see parts of myself more clearly because of the context I was in.

I also think I’ve become so appreciate of life and culture because I was able to see something so new and unfamiliar and thrive while there. Now I know what places I still want to travel and the type of people I’d want to do it with. I’ve gotten what I needed from Barcelona this time around, but I’ll be back at some point to wring out all the rest that it’s got in store for me.

I think what I’ll miss most is seeing the unfinished towers of La Sagrada Familia peeking out between buildings. I want to go back once it’s finally finished. But something about looking at the cranes that never seemed to actually be doing anything and the contrast of the new facades bright against the old ones was nice. A reminder that even the most beautiful things are a work in progress.

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On Making Friends Abroad

One of the most nerve wracking things about going abroad — besides waiting for the student visa, deciding which shoes to pack and freaking out about the eight hour flight – was wondering how I was going to make friends abroad. I consider myself shy at first, a description that would likely make anyone that knows me legitimately LOL. But it’s true, I’m not a social butterfly… I’m more of a find-that-one-person-in-the-room-to-connect-with kind of person.

I remember during my application process to Spanish Studies Abroad I was told that this was a very popular program for Ithaca College students to participate in. In fact, two other people in the program were from Ithaca College. I didn’t know who these two fellow IC bombers were until I touched down in Barcelona. We were also added to a Facebook group where we could ask questions prior to departure and an email list where we would be sent any additional information we’d need. Through these things, my internet stalking abilities were satisfied with the first and last name data of the Spanish Studies Abroad Spring 2018 group. I found some of my peers online, while others were exceptionally difficult to track because of their privacy settings (I’m looking at you, Kevin).

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Kevin from Buffalo, NY (only a few hours from my university!) and I at an FC Barcelona game our first month in Barcelona.

But of course, Facebook stalking doesn’t do a person justice and on the day of arrival when we first met each other at the Catalunya metro stop right outside Cafe Zurich (which has become a North Star of sorts to us over the last few months) I was still nervous. We all introduced ourselves in broken Spanish and all looked just as tired as the next. When we sat down for dinner, appetites lacking due to our jet lag and fatigue, we talked about our majors and our schools and our wonderful program director Adriana gave us an overview of the program. I remember her talking about how close we would probably become, saying how sometimes study abroad groups mesh well and other times its more difficult but that we will undoubtedly form great friendships here.

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Cassidy from Kentucky and I during our study trip to Girona.

I may have been skeptical then, but as with most things… Adriana was right. When it comes to study abroad I think some people choose to go with the program with the most schools or students because they think that will add to their experience. My experience with Spanish Studies Abroad was so perfect for me because of the intimate size of the group. It really let us get to know each other on a personal level and helped us become so close with our program director who would help us with anything: restaurant recommendations, doctors appointments, and informing us of events in Barcelona that we would not have come across otherwise.

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Spanish Studies Abroad Barcelona Spring 2018!

In a group so small, it is easy to see just how everyone helps to add to the dynamic which was perfect for someone who is not an outright “people person” like me. Although categorizing friendships can leave the nuance of friendship unacknowledged, I think it’s fair to say that there are differences between your home friends, your school friends, and your study abroad friends. It takes someone really special to move across the world without any friends for four months. Even if you have nothing in common with that person besides this bravery and the itch to travel and learn about a new culture, in a setting like study abroad, that’s enough. I have made amazing friendships with people that I otherwise would have never crossed paths with, people that know so much about things I know nothing about and people that were just as eager to explore a new pocket of the world as I was and who I now share memories with that can never be replicated. And that is something I will forever be grateful for.

Dalí’s Footsteps

 

Something I really appreciate about my program, Spanish Studies Abroad, specifically is the importance that is placed on being immersed in the Barcelona/Catalonia history and culture. While other programs have study trips to other countries and allow their students to live in apartments with each other I am personally really glad that the study trips through this program are in and around Barcelona and that a home stay is greatly encouraged. These aspects have made me feel like I am getting the most out of my time here because I get to see authentic parts of the daily culture that normal tourists likely do not.

During orientation back in January when we were given an overview about the trips we would be taking together we discussed our overnight visit to Figueres and Cadaques to follow in Salvador Dalí’s footsteps. From that moment I was so looking forward to this trip and after learning a lot about Dalí’s historical significance to Barcelona and Spain through one of my courses at Universitat Pompeu Fabra I became an even bigger (and more knowledgeable) fan of Dalí’s work.

The museum itself was art, with mazes and interconnecting rooms and Dalí’s work lining every wall and corner. These were paintings, sketches, 3-D forms of design, furniture, photographs… just about everything you could think of. But, because he’s Dalí, of course, everything was much more obscure than its normal form. It was one of those tourist sites that is so intriguing that you aren’t even sure what to take a photograph of because all of it is all just that cool.

Having the background from my course at UPF, “Barcelona the Rise of a Design City” made it all the more rewarding because I was able to see concepts from the classroom in person. Next, we visited Dalí’s house and estate which was absolutely (pardon my pun) surreal. His house itself was an intricate piece of art and looked like a playground mixed with a mansion mixed with an episode of that weird, old cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog (you know the one).

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Dalí’s studio inside of his home. Pictured is one of his unfinished works before his death.

These comparisons might sound crazy to most, but it’s human nature to compare the unfamiliar to something comfortable, even if that means comparing a famous artists home to a weird Cartoon Network show. Nonetheless, I loved every part of this trip. The weird intricacies of design Dalí put into every inch of the house and land, the potent smell of the salt water in Cadaques, trying to learn how to skip rocks with my program director. It’s visits like this one that make me so thankful that I chose Spanish Studies Abroad over any other program. I feel like my experience in Barcelona is being wrung out for all that it’s worth because of it.

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Bird’s Eye View

“Once the travel bug bites, there is no known antidote” -Michael Palin

To think of the person that was so anxiety ridden over traveling alone for the first time feels like remembering an old friend rather than someone I was just two months ago. Now, after exploring and inhabiting a new place in the world I already feel myself making a mental list of the places I want to visit later in life, or the sights I’d like to see again with more mature eyes in the future.

I was told time and time again how much I would want to plan trips outside of Barcelona while there considering how easy it is to get from place to place when already in Europe. I wasn’t sure if I believed this piece of advice until I got here. With some friends from my Spanish Studies Abroad program we visited Sitges for carnival, a town a train ride away from the heart of Barcelona. Carnival, similar to the States’ “Mardi Gras” was a fun excuse to make our way to the beach and get creative with our costumes. The views were great and having less of a city feel by the beach was nice, but I knew that I wanted to travel farther from Barcelona to see more of what Spain has to offer.

The first place I knew I wanted to visit was Madrid, a perfect meeting place for me to reconnect with one of my college roommate’s who is studying in Granada. When talking to my host mother about this trip she said, “Barcelona is más guay, like New York City. Madrid is more grand, like Washington D.C.” I was interested to assess this comparison on my own and to be able to share this experience with a familiar face from home.

What I found was that Madrid is probably the look and feel that people automatically resort to when thinking about Spain — the cobblestone streets, traditional looking buildings, harps playing religious songs in the center of the plaza. The buildings were more uniform there unlike in Barcelona where every street is a fun mix of old and new, traditional architecture versus modern. The palace was gorgeous and so was the 8€ boat road we took along the Parque del Retiro but I couldn’t help but compare it to how much I have fallen in love with Barcelona. In Barcelona, there exists the best of both worlds, with green spaces and big buildings, almost every metro stop appears different from the next so everywhere offers itself a new adventure.

The look and feel of Madrid reminded me most of Placa Espanya, where we went one day as a program to visit sites from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was unreal to see the futuristic Olympic village and the expansive Stadium that was utilized during the games.  After seeing that, we made our way to Monjuïc and got to see Barcelona from a bird’s eye view, ocean to mountain. Seeing it from so far up made it hit me again that I am really here. Something about everything looking so small yet vast from up top made it all feel so much bigger once we got back on the ground.

I have realized that some of my favorite things to do are to reach high points to be able to appreciate the city from that perspective. Like Mount Tibidabo and Monjuïc and los Bunkers, where I hiked with some friends to watch the sunset after class. Maybe it’s because the hikes remind me of my home collegetown of Ithaca, but I think it’s more so that I like seeing something that once seemed so scary and big to me in its entirety. It’s like the scene in Lion King when Mufasa says to Simba “Everything the light touches your kingdom.” That’s what I feel when looking at this city from the top, but rather than my kingdom — it’s my playground.

Looking Up

There’s no formula for it, but I think it takes about a month and a half to stop feeling like a tourist and start feeling like a local. The people on the street that ask me for directions or speak to me in spanish first rather than english also help this feeling of belonging. For my first month here it almost felt too surreal but now I feel that living in Barcelona is my reality it feels normal and routine in the best way. I no longer knot my eyebrows together when looking at a metro map or reading a product box in a Supermercat. And yet, I still feel butterflies when I look down a street and see La Sagrada Familia peeking between buildings. For some reason this iconic tourist site is what reminds me the most of where I am.

Being here for another month has made me see more of what Barcelona is all about rather than what postcards make it seem like it’s all. Everything from quirky museums off Las Ramblas like the Museo de Ilusiones where Spanish Studies Abroad took us or Centre de la Imatge (a free exhibition that changes every month!) where I got to appreciate images of Barcelona throughout the years with my Design class. And of course, the famous Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya where we were able to see some of the art that made Barcelona’s culture what it is today.

One of my favorite parts of February, though, was being able to share this city that I now call home with my roommate from my home school Ithaca College. Sophie made a quick 36 hour stop in Barcelona before making her way to her semester abroad in Serbia. Showing her around to the famous sites and my favorite places further proved to myself just how much I have come to know this beautiful city and that I’m a resident now rather than just a tourist. We trekked our way up Mount Tibidabo because I hadn’t done that before and

IMG_3099IMG_3106 I knew she would be up for the challenge. Despite the cold and rainy weather the one metro, one train, and one funicular were worth the view and experience. Once at the top we entered the church at the top of the mountain and appreciated the stained glass and overall ambiance. A sweet old man that worked there came up to us asking us in Spanish if we spoke the language and then proceeded to tell us the history of that church during the Spanish civil war and how Mount Tibidabo has multiple historical significances. For some reason, in that moment with my rained-through pants and shivering hands I felt so connected to this city and felt completely enriched by that short conversation. Without a doubt Mount Tibidabo has been one of my favorite parts of my time here.

I feel as though everywhere I turn there is something new to look at here and it never gets old. I have been spending so much of my time in Barcelona looking up (both literally and figuratively) and have been embarking on travel in the physical sense but so much discovery in a personal sense. This is a way I’ve never lived life before but it’s a way I never want to stop living it either.

A Month in Review

To think that I’ve almost been a Barcelona resident for about a month now is crazy to me. Time is hard to conceptualize when I find myself jam-packing every day with doing things no matter how small they are. I want to waste absolutely no time while I’m here but then again, no time here at all can really be wasted.

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Drinking from La Rambla Fountain for good luck

Looking back at my initial pre-departure post is almost laughable now. Of course my anxiety about traveling alone for the first time to a different country is valid, but my traveling process and transition here was smoother than I could have ever imagined. I slept through the flight which arrived in Barcelona a little bit before 9 in the morning. Getting through customs caused no stress and meeting up with my program director, Adriana Pajares, was easy. In fact, the hardest part of my arrival in Barcelona was probably building up the courage to get my 70 lb suitcase off the conveyor belt by myself.

Adriana helped me hail a taxi that sent me straight to my homestay. When I got there, I met my host mother and my host dog who welcomed me warmly and showed me my new home for the next few months. I began unpacking my things and setting up my new space as my next event was later in the night, around 7 p.m. where I was to meet the other students and talk more about what the program had in store.

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Traditional Spanish tapas

Those first few days were a bit chaotic, mainly just due to the sensory overload of being in a place so different than my home in New Jersey and my school in Ithaca, New York. I was learning the metro system, subconsciously picking up on new social cues, and trying to beat jet lag all at the same time. Jet lag, I must say, was rough. It took me about eight or so days to finally be able to sleep through the night without waking up before my alarm. Starting school and getting used to my daily schedule definitely helped because I was not taking unnecessary naps during the day that would affect my sleeping schedule at night.

The first day of school felt a little bit like freshman year all over again — I didn’t know the places to go during my breaks, it took me way longer than it should’ve to figure out the wifi, but as of right now I enjoy all of my classes and am learning a lot about the culture of Barcelona and all that it is made up of.

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Parc de la Ciutadella, only a 5 minute walk from my campus!

Since my time here has started I’ve seen a lot of the main sites that one thinks of when they think of Barcelona. The beach, La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, an FCB football game at Camp Nou, Casa Batlló, the wall in Girona and the other everyday intricacies of this city that are both modern and historic. All of these sites were unlike anything I’d seen before and not being a history buff, I was still able to appreciate them even if I didn’t have too much context of their historical significance before seeing them myself. La Sagrada Familia was absolutely breathtaking. The moment I walked inside, for whatever reason, I felt like I would just burst into tears because of how beautiful it was. But some of my favorite sites have been the more low-key ones, the dichotomy of modern street art next to ancient structures of the gothic quarter or the acoustic spanish version of “Despacito” that a street musician played one day while I walked around. All of these things that are lesser noticed and more seamlessly integrated into the daily life of Barcelona are what I’ve been challenging myself to appreciate the most.

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Girona, Spain

 

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Gaudi’s Park Güell

 

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Inside La Sagrada Familia

 

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FC Barcelona v. Espanyol @ Camp Nou

 

Pre-departure Jitters

New Year’s Eve is always a symbol of new beginnings, positive change, and overall good vibes emanating from the start of something fresh. This year, as I dressed up for my family’s annual themed New Year’s gathering was all that and more.

I fly out to Barcelona on January 2nd for my semester abroad through Spanish Studies Abroad. I’ve never flown alone, I’ve never been to Europe, but I’ve also never been one to shy away from a life-changing opportunity.

I’ll try everything once. I may lose sleep thinking through everything I need to pack or every step of the flying process or worrying that I’ll forget a certain conjugation of an irregular Spanish verb. But I always make it through nonetheless. To say I’m not stressed out would be a blatant disregard for the truth. I am stressed, but it’s the good kind of stress not the silent-floor-of-the-library-before-finals-week kind of stressed. This stress is overpowered by my excitement to learn a new culture and to learn about myself along the way.

I’ve never heard of someone regretting their study abroad experience. Everyone always talks about how their lives have changed for the better because of their semester-long immersion in something new and I can’t wait to feel like a part of that. In fact, this semester abroad might just be the first big “adult” thing that I do in my life. I have no doubt that my life will be better because of it.
I, of course, can’t wait for the food and the museums and all of the sightseeing. I’m excited to learn about another culture, learn another language, and to grow amazing friendships. But what I look forward to above all else is the moment I stop feeling like a tourist and start feeling like a local. I’m staying for four months after all, going to school and living in the area which I think that’s enough time for me to know what I’m doing — or at least to look like I know what I’m doing. I know at some point Barcelona is going to start to feel like my home away from home, and I hope that feeling never leaves so years down the road I can revisit this place and all of the streets that I walked as a hopeful, scared, excited and nervous 20 year old and think to myself, “Wow, I really did that.”