La vida es como una caja de chocolates

When I asked my host mom if she could think of any sayings unique to Spain, she jokingly quoted Forrest Gump: “la vida es como una caja de chocolates.” Then she listed off a few of her favorite refranes, adding that when she retires, she wants to write a book of sayings because she loves them so much.

  • No hay mal que por bien no venga

    • There’s nothing bad that can’t become good.
  • No hay mal que cien años dure

    • Nothing lasts forever (literally, “there is nothing bad that lasts 100 years”).
  • Cuando el rio suena, agua lleva

    • There’s no smoke without fire (or the equivalent).
  • Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres

    • Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.
  • A beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar

    • Eat, drink, and be merry (for tomorrow we die).
  • A mucha hambre, no hay pan duro

    • For a good appetite there is no hard bread (beggars can’t be choosers).
  • Los genios pensamos igual

    • Great minds think alike.
  • Más vale dar que recibir

    • It’s more blessed to give than to receive.
  • El mayor aborrecimiento, en el amor tiene su cimiento.

    • The greatest hate springs from the greatest love.

I was surprised to learn that many Spanish expressions resemble English ones, such as “beggars can’t be choosers” and “great minds think alike.” I wonder if they originated in Latin and so ended up incorporated into both of our cultures, or if such common wisdom transcends language. Some of the dichos (sayings) Raquel mentioned seemed surprisingly dark, especially “a beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar” (eat, drink, and be merry–for tomorrow we die). Spaniards do tend to be more blunt in everyday speech, but that seems a bit overkill. I haven’t heard many of these phrases used in daily conversation, but I have heard plenty of affectionate nicknames between my host family members. The most commonly used is “Gordo/a,” which my host parents use to refer to each other. Even though gordo literally translates to “fat,” in Spain it’s a common term of endearment. The Spanish are not only blunt; their nicknames could seem downright insulting to an American.

“Te quiero, Gorda.” “What did you just call me?!”

However, as Raquel explained, calling Alberto “Gordo” in Spanish is like calling him “pumpkin” in the U.S. No one who calls their significant other “pumpkin” is literally calling them a big orange gourd. However, Spanish nicknames do tend to be more appearance-based than in the U.S. For example: Flaco (skinny), Perro (dog), and Negro (black). Good to know that if my roommate were to date a Spaniard, I would have to tell them not to be offended if he called her “Gorda.” People who speak different languages and have different customs often struggle to communicate. This is because codes and conventions are the basis of communication. A “code” is a “system of signs in which each sign signifies a particular idea,” while “conventions” are “agreed-upon norms about how, when, and in which context codes will be used” (Thomas & Inkson 86). I’ve definitely been improving my Spanish in my time here, but there’s no avoiding cultural miscommunication sometimes. A week ago, I had just bought a coffee at Starbucks para llevar (to go) and the cup was hot, so I was looking for a cardboard sleeve to protect my hand. Finding none, I resorted to grabbing a bunch of napkins to use as a heat shield. Just as I was turning to leave, the barista called me over. “Necesitas un ‘sleeve’?” he asked, using the English word. Confused, I nodded, and he handed me one. Embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, I asked him what the proper Spanish term was. “Fajilla,” he told me with a smile. Even though my interaction with the barista wasn’t technically a miscommunication, I almost left the Starbucks without learning something new. Thanks to the kindness of the barista (who noticed my obvious American-ness), I added a useful term to my mental Spanish dictionary. For a perfectionist like me, admitting that I don’t know everything can be difficult. But sometimes a well-timed “no sé” can lead to a surprising discovery. Spaniards in particular are incredibly helpful if you ask nicely and attempt to speak their language. Often, they will provide the word you’re struggling to pull out of thin air. When in doubt, it never hurts to admit you don’t understand something.

El día de San Valentín en Málaga

This weekend, my friends and I traveled to Málaga. As the southernmost city in Spain, Málaga reminded me a lot of Florida–palm trees lined the streets, huge flocks of seagulls blacked out the sky, and the sea breeze practically yanked my Californian friends to the coast with one salty whiff (they missed the Pacific enough to run all the way down the pier to the beach). However, Málaga (originally the ancient Phoenician settlement of Malaka) has got about 2,300 years on the 16th-century Spanish territory of Florida.

Exploring the Alcazaba of Málaga, a palatial fort built by the Hammudid dynasty in the early 11th century, felt like falling through one of those pools in C.S. Lewis’s Wood between the Worlds.

Warning: As beautiful as the Alcazaba is, it’s also located at the top of a steep hill. As my roommate put it: “Please tell me there’s an Alcazabus!” (Sadly, there wasn’t.)

One moment you’re buying postcards and slurping up gelato, and the next you’re climbing cobblestone steps that were laid a millennium ago. The Alcazaba is even more well-preserved than the Real Alcázar de Sevilla, which made for a surreal experience. I almost expected a medieval sultan to emerge from one of the many alcoves and find us trespassing.

After we toured the Alcazaba, my friends ran to the nearby beach. The water was chilly, but they had been ocean-deprived for so long that they didn’t care. So we spent the last full day of our “Galentine’s Day” weekend playing in the sand and taking beach pictures with our TCU flag. Even though my feet were freezing, the ocean breeze in my face was worth it.

The last tourist attraction we visited was the Museo Picasso Málaga. Pablo Picasso, the great 20th-century artist famous for co-founding the Cubist movement, was born in Málaga in 1881. The museum showcases rooms upon rooms of Picasso’s sketches, paintings, sculptures, and writings. The museum itself is a gorgeously renovated modern building (see below). You’d never guess that Roman and Phoenician ruins can be found in the basement!

One of the highlights of our trip was when the shopkeeper at a convenience store complimented our “beautiful English.” We’d definitely never heard that before! It’s odd to think about someone hearing my native language and thinking it sounds beautiful–the way we think Romance languages sound. I may or may not have teared up a little.

Málaga was a nice mini-vacation from Sevilla. It’s different enough that it felt like a relaxing getaway, but shares the same friendly Andalucían culture that characterizes southern Spain. If you’re ever in the area, make plans to stay at an Air B&B in this charming coastal city!

How to Explain Sororities to a Spanish Teenager

For the month that I’ve been in Spain, I’ve been focused on learning more about my host culture and assimilating into the Spanish way of life. But sometimes, teaching someone about your own culture can be just as difficult.

Alesha and I are both founding members of AOII, and she studied with the same host family in Sevilla last spring.

At dinner with our host brother, Pablo, my roommates and I found ourselves struggling to explain the concept of a sorority (hermandad de mujeres was the closest translation we found). I only wanted to tell him that one of their previous exchange students from last year is one of my sorority sisters!

Some concepts just don’t exist in other countries, though. At first, we approached it from a literal perspective. “It’s an organization of men or women at universities.” “It’s expensive.” “They have secret hand signals and passwords.” “They have a selective recruitment process.” “They like to party.” But Pablo still shrugged, confused.

Then we tried appealing to his knowledge of American pop culture. “Have you ever seen Legally Blonde? No? Animal House?” Nothing clicked: “Like High School Musical?” Uh, not exactly.

Omigod, like, don’t all sorority girls totally speak like this? (But for real, Elle Woods is my hero.)

That’s when we reached for extreme examples out of desperation. (Although, to be fair, only two of us are sorority members, so my other roommates may have some anti-Greek bias.) “It’s almost like a cult!” “Like when people have to pay for their friends?” Still nothing.

Eventually, we had to give up. Explaining a concept like Greek life to a teenager who lives in a country where the majority of college students commute to school, instead of living on campus, is near impossible. The sororities and fraternities we have in the U.S. (and Canada) are a unique social institution that people from other countries struggle to conceptualize outside of the silver screen. Heck, many Americans view Greek organizations as mysterious, bacchanalian cults (not without reason, unfortunately).

In fact, before I joined a sorority my freshman year of college, I had the same negative view of sororities as most of my friends. Before I became a founding member of Alpha Omicron Pi at TCU, I couldn’t ever have imagined going Greek. However, once I met actual sorority women and understood the meaning the organization held for them, I began to understand why someone would want to join. Young women join sororities for more than just parties; they crave companionship, community, and a shared sense of purpose. I realized that I wanted those same things, too.

1451620_708280839182377_1780464041_nThe same concept applies to another culture; as an outsider to Spanish culture, at first I didn’t understand the laid-back Spanish lifestyle. But just as with my sorority (perhaps a subculture?), after meeting actual Spaniards and living in their culture, I began to understand the value of taking things slow. The same goes for the custom of kissing cheeks in greeting, which to be honest I’m still getting used to.

Regardless of how difficult some cultural concepts are to explain, it’s important to remember that the reverse applies. I’m sure if I were to ask Pablo why Spanish university students don’t live on campus, he would struggle to explain–not because he doesn’t know why, but because it’s such an accepted part of his culture that he doesn’t usually question it. Like all of us, he would be operating on “cultural cruise control,” or letting his life be completely guided by built-in cultural assumptions (Thomas & Inkson 46).

10609575_845171455493314_4456821046070572691_nOne thing I’ve noticed in my travels is disregarding tired stereotypes (lazy Spaniards, loud Americans, rude Frenchmen) is the first step to improving one’s cultural intelligence. Paying attention to the cultural context and disregarding the “mental programming” instilled from birth can help us be mindful of our cultural surroundings (Thomas & Inkson 54). Through mindfulness, we can recognize our cultural differences while still making an effort to compromise and assimilate.

For me, the hardest thing about turning off my “cultural cruise control” is simply paying attention and practicing curiosity. I often find myself instinctively “categorizing, judging, [and] reacting” instead of simply letting new experiences unfold and enjoying them (Kashdan 89). I want to keep better records of my daily experiences in Spain, so that when something truly extraordinary happens, I will notice.

One of my favorite mantras to remember as I encounter new cultures is: “I will assume or presume nothing except that novelty exists everywhere” (89). Life is exciting, whether you’re in another country or your suburban hometown; if you don’t pay attention, you may let it pass you by.

I always thought a sorority would be the most conformist, homogenous organization ever. But the unique qualities of every one of my sisters continue to amaze me.

Siestas & Sangría: Taking it Slow, Spanish-Style

Apparently, when Spaniards think “American,” the first trait that comes to mind is “patriotic.” When I asked my History of Spain professor what makes her “proud” to be a Spaniard, she gave me an odd look. “I don’t know if I’m proud, but I appreciate the ‘Spanish way of life,'” she told me. By this, she meant the Spanish tendency to enjoy life in a laid back way.

Puppies naturally practice siesta.

My professor was careful to emphasize that Spaniards aren’t “lazy,” as the stereotype goes. They believe that we should enjoy every second of life. Sometimes taking the time to smell the roses can be completely worth it, in a Spaniard’s eyes.

When a waiter doesn’t make a beeline for their table right after you sit down, an American might complain. But in Spain, it’s considered polite for a waiter not to bug you, to give you time to relax and look at the menu yourself. What’s rude or not all depends on one’s perspective.

For my professor, who lived in the U.S. for several years, Americans put too much pressure on themselves to be successful. To her, it always seemed like they were in a hurry compared to Spanish culture. To some extent, I agree with her assessment. Especially when it comes to the work world, Americans tend to “live to work,” not “work to live.”

It’s not that Spaniards don’t work hard. They just recognize that sometimes you have to sit back and relax before you can be productive.

And yet, as Thomas and Inkson point out, not all members of a culture are identical. “Personality is based on the specific genetic makeup and personal experiences that make each of us a unique individual,” and it determines much of our behavior. You can’t lump all members of a culture together and expect them to act exactly the same way.

For example, I am a laid-back person, even if sometimes I stress out about school. If it’s midnight and I’m not done with my homework, I’ll head straight to bed and finish it in the morning, because I don’t believe in pushing my physical limits for a grade. My brain works better with rest, anyway.

However, one of my roommates last year was the opposite. She was self-proclaimed “Type A” and always had to schedule her days down to the minute. In exchange, she got to finish all her homework days before it was due. (I was only a little jealous). My roommate is more of a “textbook” American because of her go-getter personality, even though both of us belong to the same culture.

From the moment I learned that siesta is a real cultural practice, I’ve embraced the Spanish “polychronic” view of time. I’ve done my best to say goodbye to the American need for punctuality.

I’m going to pretend Salvador Dalí’s surrealist clocks are a metaphor for the Spanish polychronic sense of time.

Sure, sometimes I miss stores being open nearly 24/7 (oh, Target, te extraño), but I still prefer the relaxed pace of Spanish culture over the constant hustle and bustle of my home country. I wonder if the reason for siesta is to avoid the hottest part of the day in the summer? If only Texas were to catch on to that idea!

None of this means that I want to completely become a Spaniard, though. As much as I love my host country, I can’t turn my back on the culture I grew up in. For one, I miss my boyfriend. Also hamburgers. For another, if I were to take a siesta for the rest of my life, I would never get anything done.

Tinto de verano is fast becoming my favorite Spanish drink.

All the same, I want to assimilate into Spanish culture while I’m here, even just a little bit. Even though I’ll never pick up a cigarette–people smoke a lot here–I’m down for a tinto de verano (wine and fruit soda) and some fútbol every once and a while.

21 Things I’ve Learned So Far

I’ve been living in Sevilla, Spain, for almost a month now, and I thought I’d share some study abroad tips I’ve discovered–through experience or by word-of-mouth. So here are 21 things to think about when you’re studying abroad in Europe.

Prioritize your travel destinations so you don’t get overwhelmed.

  • Of course you want to visit 30 different countries, but you can’t visit every last place you want to. Narrow it down to the top 3-5 destinations you refuse to go home without seeing, and then list those in order of importance.

Make an effort to speak the language!

  • If you only speak the language when you’re around natives, you’ll rely on speaking with your English roommates/classmates as a crutch. Do your best to only lapse into English when you really have to–soon you’ll find it difficult to switch between the two, which is a good sign.

Always have your host country’s currency in cash (and coins) on hand.

  • You never know when you need small bills to pay for a coffee (or a macaroon*).
Plus, Euros are just so much prettier than U.S. dollars.

Take advantage of siesta and other cool customs in your host country.

  • If you refuse to capitalize on some of the most relaxing traditions of your host country, why did you even study abroad? You bet I’m sleeping every day from 3-5 pm–any cultural excuse to nap is just fine by me.

Give yourself time to adjust to the new schedule.

  • As lovely as siestas are, they tend to throw off one’s biological clock at first. Ditto later meal times (who ever heard of dinner as late as 9:30 pm). Add the jet lag from the journey, and you’re bound to need several days to recover.

Set your phone to military time a few days before you leave.

  • If you’re studying anywhere in Europe, they’re going to use the 24-hour clock instead of our 12-hour one. Which means 17:00 is actually 5 pm. Once you get over the initial strain of having to perform simple arithmetic (my last math class was freshman year, okay?), it’s actually a really easy system. No more confusion on whether you should meet at “10 am or 10 pm?”

Wi-fi is a privilege, so take advantage of it when you can.

  • But really. You never know when your host family’s wi-fi (or wee-fee, as they call it in Spain) will fizzle out, and then you’re stuck having to read a book or something. Cafés and places like McDonald’s have free wi-fi, but be wary of spending all your money on delicious cafés con leche while you study.
Mmm, café con leche.

Read the local news.

  • It may seem unimportant, since you’re not really a native, but it’s always advisable to know what’s going on in the country where you live. Can you imagine an exchange student living in America not being aware of the “Black Lives Matter” protests happening in the U.S. right now? (On a side note, apparently Spain’s version of the Oscars–Los Premios Goya, after the painter Francisco de Goya–just ended ast week, and I had no idea. Oops.)

Read books in the language of your host country.

  • I picked up a Spanish copy of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (or El Último Unicornio) so I can familiarize myself with the written language. I am a writing major, after all.
One of my favorite childhood movies, in book form! In SPANISH!

Always have a phone and a copy of your passport with you.

  • This cannot be stressed enough. Make sure you’re never stranded alone in a foreign country without a way of contacting anyone or proving your identity. Just don’t do it.

The metro is one of the easiest ways to get around.

  • Much to everybody’s surprise, public transportation in Europe is actually very clean, efficient, and organized. Particularly in Sevilla, which only has one metro line going two different directions, taking the metro is a breeze.

Bring a real camera, not just a smart phone.

  • I learned this lesson the hard way when my smart phone died less than a week after I arrived in Spain. Talk about a bummer–it was also my camera! Luckily I ordered a GoPro camera and it arrived yesterday, so I can finally act like a tourist and snap a million photos again.

Keep a paper travel journal, even if you also have a blog.

  • For similar reasons, it’s good to record your thoughts and experiences abroad on paper as well as the internet. Some things are so exciting that you won’t want to wait for internet access to record them. Plus, you can always tape ticket stubs and other memorabilia in your travel journal that you couldn’t online.

Document your meals!

  • It might sound strange, but you’ll want to know what that delicious fried potato dish was called by the time you leave. (Pictures would be even better.)
Patatas bravas are a type of tapa, and they are muy sabrosa!

Pack light if you want to buy clothes in your host country.

  • If you’re like me and you have a serious shopping problem, try to pare down your suitcase before you even step foot on the plane. And don’t forget to give yourself a clothes budget so you don’t go overboard.

If you buy fruit, don’t forget to weigh it first and get a ticket before approaching the checkout counter.

  • My roommate found this out the other day. It resulted in a lot of confusion and rapid Spanish that she didn’t understand. Best to avoid that situation altogether.

Don’t leave the gates when you’re switching trains–it invalidates your ticket!

  • Again, my friend discovered this piece of arcane knowledge while traveling. She got it figured out, but her trip was undoubtedly stressful after this happened..

Learn to take shorter showers.

  • Europeans are serious about conserving natural resources. It’s important to respect your host family by turning off lights when you leave a room and taking showers that are no longer than 5 minutes.

Take photos with friends – and selfies!

  • When your time abroad is over, you’re going to want plenty of photos so you can remember all your great experiences. But make sure you get pics of not just the cool cathedrals and paintings you see–you also need ones featuring you and your friends!
¡Mis amigas y yo!

Bring an e-reader or buy books in your host country.

  • Whether you’re taking the metro or flying to Paris, you’ll want something to do besides stare blankly out the window. Also, keep in mind that there’s a surprising amount of down time at your homestay, especially in the beginning when you don’t have homework.

Try to keep up with the news back home.

  • It’s harder than you might think, but staying at least a little informed about the U.S. will keep you from being totally out of the loop when you get back home.

* Here’s a fun story: Last semester, when TCU brought a bunch of study abroad “alumni” to an event to talk to us, one of my friends talked with a girl who seemed to have no idea what a budget was. Apparently, her parents had given her an outrageous amount of money per month for her study abroad trip, and she encouraged everyone going abroad to beg their parents for as much money as possible. “After all, when you’re in Paris, you’re gonna want to buy that macaroon!” she exclaimed. The phrase has become a bit of an inside joke among my study abroad companions.

“Buy us. Buuuuy us.”

Dicen por la calle

real alcazar 3After living in Spain for three weeks, I’m finally beginning to adjust to the differences between Europe and the United States, from later meal times to a more careful conservation of natural resources. However, I’m still a relative newcomer and some practices continue to baffle me. For example, it’s frustrating that I can’t go shopping anytime between the hours of 3 and 5 pm because most stores are closed for siesta (much as I love the custom).

As I’m learning this semester, however, each individual traveler must develop cultural intelligence at their own pace. Currently, I believe I’m in the Recognition stage; I recognize other cultural norms and am motivated to learn more about them, but I “struggle with the complexity of the new environment” (Thomas & Inkson 154).

Did I mention that my host mom Raquel is a singer/voice coach/judge on the Spanish version of “The Voice”? Check out her music video, “Dicen por la calle” by La Brujha! She rocks.

An important step in cultural assimilation is first learning the differences between my cultural background and that of my host country. To investigate the qualities that supposedly distinguish Americans from Spaniards, I asked my host parents what they thought of Americans. What assumptions do they have about my country? I was curious to see if I fit into their idea of a “typical” American, although they might be a bit biased since they’ve been hosting American exchange students for years now.


Unsurprisingly, both Raquel and Alberto immediately answered “muy patriótico.” Apparently in Spain no one paints themselves red and yellow and screams “¡Viva España!” at the top of their lungs except when Spain wins at fútbol. I love my country, but I’m not quite as gung ho as many overzealous Americans who think the U.S. can do no wrong. However, I’ve never thought about how other countries view our Fourth of July fireworks and “USA” chants. If I were a European, I think I might be half-baffled, half-admiring of a plucky nation that’s not even three hundred years old and its unflagging confidence.

Both of my host parents also mentioned how they see Americans as unhealthy fast food-lovers. I thought this was funny, considering that they’ve served me more French fries (patatas fritas) per week than I ever ate in the States. But I can’t deny that no other country possesses quite as many fast food chains as the U.S. And even if I don’t eat McDonald’s every week, I also happen to have a sweet tooth; I’ve consumed an entire jar of Nutella since I’ve been here. (Not sure if Nutella counts as fast food, but it sure ain’t healthy.) Negative stereotypes about America’s fast food problem don’t bother me, but maybe that’s because we’re so aware of it in the U.S. already.

Raquel in particular sheepishly noted that America is infamous for its racism. I winced, but I couldn’t disagree. America’s history of racial oppression and violence is not quite as easy to brush off as our weakness for fatty foods, particularly considering the race riots in response to police brutality in Ferguson recently.

As a middle class white girl, I’ve always been safely insulated from the ugly legacy of racism and segregation in the U.S., but I’ve recently started reading up on the experiences of black Americans to better understand the protestors’ anger. My idea of the U.S. as a post-racial paradise quickly shattered in the wake of testimony from actual black people who have been physically or psychologically harmed by white supremacist racists in America. Of course, Europe also has its fair share of racists, but racism is unfortunately alive and well in the U.S.

An interesting American quality my host parents mentioned was our “cold” demeanor. I was initially surprised by this, but I soon realized what they really meant was Americans do not talk as much or as loudly. Americans also have more strict boundaries concerning personal space, and we don’t kiss each other on the cheek in greeting (which some could see as more intimate than a simple handshake).

I have to admit, I’m still getting used to the “cheek kiss” greeting.

Seeing my culture through different eyes was interesting–I realized that my idea of “normal” social interaction is actually a manifestation of my American culture. Not all countries need to maintain a distance of three to five feet between strangers, and not all cultures view loud conversation as rude.

It’s been a long three weeks of hard lessons–man, do I miss being able to take long showers without worrying about water conservation–but I can’t wait for the many more lessons to come. I’m ready to gain even more cultural intelligence while also working on my Spanish, and to explore new countries and cultures as well.

Watch out, world.

Real Alcázar de Sevilla

Ever since my AP Art History class in high school, I’ve been fascinated by Islamic (or Moorish) architecture. One of my favorite things about Seville is its Islamic influence–certain buildings’ striped, onion-shaped archways and beautiful mosaics distinguish them as Islamic, or of the mudéjar architectural style.

real alcazar 2I recently visited the Real Alcázar of Sevilla, or the “royal palace of Sevilla.” Literally a stone’s throw away from La Catedral de Sevilla (or “The Giralda”), the medieval Real Alcázar is the oldest European palace still in use today. Full of decadent gardens and intricately carved halls, walking through the palace is like walking through a bygone age of sultans and caliphs. Even better, the entrance fee for students (even with an ID from a foreign university) was only 2!

From enormous wall-sized tapestries depicting medieval tales to the 16th century Moorish tiles, the interior of Real Alcázar was heaven for a history nerd like me. The surprisingly expansive gardens, while stunningly beautiful, also contained some surprises. My friends and I certainly weren’t expecting to be chased by a giant peacock while exploring the gardens outside the palace! (One of them was forever traumatized.)

If you ever find yourself in Sevilla, the gorgeous Real Alcázar is a must-see. Not only is it cheap, it’s big enough to warrant multiple visits.