Orange Blossoms and Minarets in al-Andalus

Since their arrival in 711 CE and long after their expulsion in 1614, Muslims (and people of Arabic descent) have influenced the Iberian Peninsula culturally, socially, and economically. Under Muslim rule, the peninsula (formerly known as Hispania under Roman rule) became known as al-Andalus. Coincidentally, the southern autonomous community that contains Sevilla is now called Andalucía, because it was the center of medieval Moorish power. The influence of Moorish culture on Spain can be seen (and heard) everywhere. A whopping 8% of the Spanish language derives from Arabic, the second largest lexical influence after Latin. Arabic words as varied as  hasta (until), asesino (assassin), almohada (pillow), azúcar (sugar), and adobe (sun-dried brick), all found their way into the Spanish language after nine centuries of Muslim occupation. Certain cities and regions of Spain were affected more strongly than others, particularly the south. Sevilla (a name that originated from the Arabic Ishbiliya), a city near the Muslim capital of Córdoba, became a center of trade and Muslim influence. The Moors brought the distinctive bitter orange trees to the city, and the word azahar (orange blossom) comes from Arabic. Even today, the air of Sevilla smells like oranges.

The “bitter orange,” or “Seville orange,” can be found throughout the city. These orange trees in front of La Giralda cathedral are connected by miniature aqueducts for irrigation. (Warning: the name is no joke–apparently the oranges, sour like lemons, are too bitter to eat. Instead, they are used for marmalade.)

The Moors also inspired the medieval mudéjar style of architecture, which can be seen in the Real Alcázar of Sevilla, originally a fortified royal palace built by the Almohad dynasty. (Click through to read my post about my visit to the Alcázar, with pictures.) The Alcázar is one of the best preserved Moorish forts in Spain, and it is beautifully maintained. The palace contains shards of Moorish ceramic tiles and pottery, as well as tapestries and intricately carved ceilings of Arabic calligraphy. Outside, peacocks can be found wandering among the orange and cypress trees in the palace’s lavish gardens.

La Catedral de Sevilla is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. La Giralda is a daunting 34-floor climb (but with ramps instead of stairs).

La Giralda is another important symbol of Muslim rule in Sevilla. Originally built as a minaret for a mosque by the Muslim Almohad dynasty, a Renaissance bell tower top was added by the Christians during the Reconquista. La Giralda is a proud Sevillan symbol of both Moorish and Christian heritage to this day. The cathedral and its bell tower harken back to a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews all coexisted in relative peace in al-Andalus. Today, long after the Catholic monarchs expelled the Muslims from Spain, only about a million Spaniards are Muslim. That’s about 2.3% of the population, compared to the nearly 88% Catholic majority. Of the Spaniards who immigrated here, 71% are from Morocco. According to my host mom, most of these immigrants reside in southern Spain because they provide cheap labor for the invernaderos (greenhouses) and construction industry. Muslim immigrants are also concentrated in Ceuta and Melilla (autonomous cities within Morocco, but legally part of Spain), and in Almería.

Abd Al-Rahman III and his Court in Medina Azahara by Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer

For the most part, because Muslim immigrants make up such a small portion of the Spanish population, they exist in relative peace. However, my host mom told me that she does not like Arabic culture “because of the way it degrades women.” She said that Islamic culture scares her much more than Chinese culture or any other immigrant culture, because of the extremism that can come from Islam. She called the way Islam divides men and women “dangerous,” expressing a common sentiment among Western non-Muslims, especially Americans. While I disagree with Raquel’s opinion, since I know that Muslim women (at least those in countries where they have legal rights) are free to choose whether to don the hijab (headscarf) and follow the tenets of Islam. Just as with any other religion, Islam is a choice, and some would view the strict dress code for women (and men) as a sign of respect–putting women on a pedestal. Some would also call the revealing clothes many American women choose to wear “degrading.” Whether a culture is “degrading” or “wrong” all lies in the eye of the beholder.

The Great Mosque at Córdoba is an example of Muslim architecture, particularly the Moorish “horseshoe arch” seen here.

To me, the influence of Arabic culture and all the wonderful inventions, knowledge, and art it brought to Spain far outweigh the discomfort some Spaniards may feel when confronted with believers in Allah. After all, isn’t the Catholic god the same “God”?

Una España Verde

I’ve always been terrible at conserving natural resources, for all that I loved my AP Environmental Science class in high school. I’m afraid of the dark, so I always have the lights on, and I love taking long, hot showers.

Transitioning to the much more resource-conscious lifestyle of Spain (and Europe in general) has been interesting, but not as difficult as I first thought. To take a five-minute shower, you just have to cut out things like shaving and save them for one day when you can turn the water on and off (brrr!). Showering has also gotten easier as the weather has warmed, since the tile bathroom can be freezing if the water’s not on. Apparently, Sevilla levies fines on people who use too much water. I’ve learned to turn off lights as much as possible, and my nocturnal eyesight has improved.

I wish Fort Worth had such great public transportation!

Spaniards have a much more energy-efficient transportation infrastructure than in the U.S. Instead of driving everywhere and clogging streets and the air with traffic and pollution, Spaniards take the metro/bus/tram to work. The cars that do exist here are smaller than American trucks and SUVs (although there are fewer Fiats than I expected). According to my host dad, who owns a car, driving usually isn’t worth it because of the lack of parking in Sevilla. I can relate, coming from the land of parking tickets at TCU. Aside from public transportation and cycling, many people just walk most places here. Because it’s a city and everything is closer together, you can walk to most places within the city limits (except UPO).

Since 2007, Sevilla has “instituted a community bike-sharing scheme, a surface tram, an underground metro, two high-speed train links, a pilot electric car programme and . . . the first commercial solar power plant in Europe.” The bike-sharing program, Sevici, is useful because of the various bike locations throughout the city and because of the city’s 120 km of bike lanes. Sevilla takes its bikers’ safety–and the environment–seriously.

Sevilla is also just surprisingly clean. The metro is spotless, and apart from the numerous cigarette butts, the streets outshine big cities like New York and Paris. The air always smells like fresh oranges, and the skies are almost always clear. I often see shopkeepers mopping the street outside their shops, which is something that never seems to happen in the U.S. Clearly, sevillanos take pride in keeping their city clean and beautiful.

The lack of cars on many Sevillan streets makes for a much more picturesque view.

My host family thinks recycling and saving natural resources is an important part of Spanish life. They seem unable to imagine the wastefulness of most American households–for one, they don’t even own clothes dryers here. They dry all their clothes by hand outside and hope it doesn’t rain. Raquel especially can’t imagine having to drive everywhere; one of her favorite parts of living near downtown Sevilla is the convenience of being able to walk almost everywhere. I agree, because even though I’ve never lived in a big city with public transportation before, it’s really nice not to worry about parking and traffic. Walking is so much easier.

When I first came to Spain, I thought adjusting to the sustainable lifestyle here would be a challenge. I was surprised to find how natural it has been to fall into step with my host family’s resource conservation, though. I know that even when I return to the U.S., I’ll do my best to keep saving resources and money by taking shorter showers, turning off the lights, and trying to use public transportation or walk more.

Tuition is too damn high: American vs. European universities

I’ll admit that when I first chose TCU, I wasn’t looking for the cheapest option. In 2012, the total cost of attendance was around $48,000 a year (it’s now jumped to $59,370, but that’s a whole other story).

Interest is coming.

I knew that I wanted a great education at a small liberal arts school, and of course most of my options turned out to be private schools. I did land a sizable academic scholarship that helped pay for some of my school, but if I didn’t have a generous grandma with a passion for education, I would be going to community college instead–or at least be elbow-deep in crippling student debt. (Not-so-fun fact: American federal student loan debt now adds up to about $1 trillion!) American college ain’t cheap, and tuition is only growing, at 500% of what it was in 1985.

Naturally, when I discovered that in Europe, most countries subsidize university education, I was stunned. Spaniards only have to pay between €600 and €1,800 per year (at a public university, but still). In Germany, a university education is now completely free. Some students at UPO have been handing out flyers for their upcoming protest of “the privatization of public universities” (aka, a tuition jump of about €100). One of my roommates told me she almost started laughing when she heard them ranting. If only they knew we attend a school that costs about 65 times as much.

They should be glad they’re graduating without massive student debt.

Luckily, the high price of American tuition does ensure a better quality education, at least from what I’ve seen. Of course, I’m not taking any classes with Spaniards, but from what I can tell the professors at TCU are more qualified than the ones I’ve had at UPO, even if they’re not bilingual. They also just seem to be better teachers, which is one of the reasons I decided to attend TCU in the first place. Like most students, I do much better in school when I’m encouraged by a great teacher.

I guess high tuition is only to be expected from a school that had millions of dollars set aside for flower upkeep…

When I asked my host dad, Alberto, for his opinion on the price of university education in Spain, his immediate response was “demasiado caro” (too expensive). For him, about €800 a year was too expensive. When I laughed, he realized pretty quickly that it was more of a pained laugh than an amused one. “¿Y en los Estados Unidos? Es mucho más caro, no?” he asked.

, Alberto. . He looked floored when I explained that a year of school at TCU now costs almost $60,000. He did point out that for most Spaniards, a middle-class worker makes only about €40,000 a year. (And the euro is exactly $1.09 right now, so that’s basically equivalent.) Housing is also way cheaper in Spain (about €800 a month for a three-bedroom house in a good location in Sevilla). So maybe they make up for their cheap university cost with smaller salaries and a cheaper standard of living?

Either way, I can’t help but be jealous of my host mom, Raquel, who’s currently getting her master’s in Pychology at a private Spanish university for free with a scholarship. I have a 3.9 GPA at TCU and I’m not getting anything for free.

Still, as I always remind myself when I hear my friends from other schools talk about their tuition being under $10,000 a year, I wouldn’t trade my TCU education for the world. (Or €800.)

Go Frogs!

How to be sick while abroad

Catching a cold is never fun, but it’s even less fun when you’re studying abroad in another country. The medicines are all named different things, you may or may not speak the language, you don’t have insurance… In the U.S., all those things could add up to a real healthcare nightmare. But at least in Spain, I’ve been able to treat my cold with surprising ease.

So I put together some tips for treating your cold while abroad:

  • First off, if you have a cold that just won’t go away, go straight to the doctor.
Most programs will have a doctor they trust and the director can probably give you directions.
  • Be prepared to answer the doctor’s questions in the language of the country you’re staying in.
Look up simple vocab words like “cough,” “congestion,” and “pain,” depending on your ailment.

  • Don’t expect to wait long.

The combined waiting time for my two visits was only five minutes total! It seems like doctors’ offices are a lot more efficient in Spain, for whatever reason.
  • Pay for your visit.

My first visit cost 45, but amazingly enough when I went back for a second one (only three days later, since my symptoms hadn’t improved) they let me go without paying a cent! That’s right, I landed a free doctor’s visit and it was GREAT.

  • Fill your prescription(s) at any pharmacy.

Unlike in the U.S., the doctor doesn’t ask which pharmacy you use; you can walk into the closest one on your street and fill the prescription. And don’t worry if the handwriting seems illegible–the pharmacists are used to doctor handwriting. Here’s another great thing about socialized medicine: both times I visited the pharmacy and purchased several prescriptions, my total never rose above 10! (Of course, this depends on the type of medicine you need.)
Look for the blinking green cross-shaped sign; you can’t miss ’em.
  • Take school off if you need to.

Be sure to get a doctor’s note, though, because professors can be strict about excused absences. Going to school when you’re miserably sick won’t help anyone, least of all you. Get the notes from someone else and relax!

How to get lost in Paris

Despite my difficulties navigating the gigantic urban sprawl that is Paris a couple weeks ago, I’m glad I visited. Growing up in North Texas and even studying abroad in Sevilla, I haven’t been to a big city since I was eight and living in Chicago.

Both the size and grandeur of Paris amazed and delighted me. I felt transported back in time as I walked the streets and passed the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sacre Coeur. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to live there and see such sights every day on the commute to work.

(Pro tip: Buy a metro pass as soon as you get to Paris. Buying tickets every time you want to take the metro is a huge pain, and it’s cheaper to buy three or five days’ worth.)


My friend Kathleen and I stayed in a quaint little hotel called Hotel de la Mare, where the cheerful owner brought us a basket of croissants every morning for breakfast. Even though the hotel was about a 15-minute walk uphill from the nearest metro stop (Ménilmontant), it was both affordable and comfortable.

Our first stop on our tour of Paris was the Sacre Coeur, a white domed cathedral on the top of a hill overlooking the Montmartre neighborhood. From the top, we had a view of the Paris skyline. A man was selling roasted, glazed nuts at the top, and they were delicious. I also found a purple beret at a souvenir shop nearby, for only 4. Go Frogs!

(P.S. Nutella crepes are delicious.)

Our next stop, the Eiffel Tower, was much bigger than I expected. It looks small from far away, but up close the giant iron structure looms over the Seine. I’ll upload photos once my friend uploads them from her camera, since my GoPro died as soon as we got there. Since we’re both afraid of heights and the line for going to the top was insane, we opted out. (Pro tip: buy tickets in advance.)

Nearby, we found a bridge with several locks attached. Thinking it was the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” we bought locks for 3 each and locked them onto the bridge. I wrote my name and my boyfriend’s on mine, and Kathleen wrote “Me, myself, and I,” which cracked us both up. Apparently, though, many bridges on the Seine have locks attached to them, and only one is the original Bridge of Sighs.

Locks of love!

Luckily, we soon located the real bridge, Pont Alexandre III, across from the Louvre. Since we had kept the keys, we were able to detach our locks and move them to the correct bridge. (There was almost no room, though, since someone had boarded up the sides of the bridge because it was so full of locks.) We heard a rumor that some poor guy has to go in and cut off all the locks every once a while, because their weight causes too much strain on the bridge. It’s insane.

I don’t have any of my own photos from Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe, partly because Kathleen and I couldn’t figure out how to cross the gigantic roundabout street to get to the enormous monument. Like the Eiffel Tower, it was also way bigger than I imagined.

Note the impossibly wide street that encircles the whole monument. We walked all the way around it in an attempt to find a crosswalk. (Hint: There were none.)

Finally, we realized that all that walking had been for nothing. The entrance is close to the nearest metro stop (Charles de Gaulle), and you have to descend some stairs that look awfully like another metro station. Then you walk down a long hallway to find the ticket area. Unfortunately, it was the weekend so we couldn’t even see the end of the line. We decided seeing the Arc up close wasn’t worth the wait.

Then, because Kathleen and I are both art lovers, we had to visit the Louvre. Due to the museum’s size (with 70,000 artworks spread across more than 650,000 square feet of gallery space), we probably only saw a third of the artworks. However, we did see the Mona Lisa, “Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix, and the Nike of Samothrace (one of my favorite sculptures). I apologize for the blurriness of my Mona Lisa selfie, since there were about fifty people swarming the painting and it was difficult to get close.

After the Louvre, we stumbled upon a nearby cathedral called Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the neighborhood where Kathleen’s mom lived when she studied abroad in Paris in college. The church was a bit dark, but the inside was nevertheless beautiful. It’s supposed to house the tomb of the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, but we didn’t end up seeing it anywhere.

Then came Notre Dame. I was excited to see the cathedral that first entered my imagination after Disney’s adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but unfortunately we spotted neither Esmeralda nor Quasimodo. Kathleen and I took pictures with her purple TCU flag (again, photos to come), even though the wind made it necessary for two kindhearted ladies to help us out by offering to hold the corners. I was a little disappointed that the inside was about the same as any other cathedral I’ve visited, but the outside was gorgeous.

Even though it took us two tries (it closes early), next we toured the Musée d’Orsay, which is a converted train station that houses a lot of Impressionist paintings. The building itself was awesome–the giant clock was my favorite part–and I loved getting to see some Van Goghs and Monets. And like all the museums we visited in Paris, it was completely free!

For our last big landmark, we took a train to Versailles. After waiting in a seemingly endless line that looped around several times, we made it inside. Like the Musée d’Orsay, it was free for students. The impossible grandeur of the former royal château helped me understand some of the righteous anger behind the French Revolution. Walking through Marie Antoinette‘s bedroom was both sad and surreal.

I’m sure the Versailles gardens are more beautiful in the summer, but even in winter they were pretty amazing. Although fair warning: It’s a bad idea to walk through the gardens in an attempt to leave Versailles, because they go on forever and you will get lost and have to ask a French person for directions.

On our last day in Paris, we strolled down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which had some of the most expensive stores I’ve ever seen. Kathleen had a painfully awkward experience with a French shop owner who called her beautiful and asked her why she didn’t have a boyfriend (later revealing that he was married, like that would make it better).

But once we escaped, we drowned our sorrows with coffee and gigantic macaroons. I’d never tried a macaroon before, but the strawberry and chocolate ones I tried were wonderful. I probably couldn’t eat them on a regular basis, though, because they’re a little too sweet even for me. We finally fulfilled the hypothetical advice of that one girl back home: “You’re gonna wanna buy that macaroon.”

And we did.

Then it was back to Spain and lovely, familiar Sevilla. The strange thing about arriving back in my host city is how much like “home” it felt. I don’t feel like I’m living in a strange country anymore; Sevilla now feels as much like home as TCU does. (To be fair, I have been here for about two months now.)

As soon as Kathleen and I heard people speaking Spanish, we sighed in relief. Navigating Paris without knowing more than “bonjour” and “merci” was tough, and it was nice to be back in a country where we could depend on our language skills if we got lost. Plus, Sevilla is just so friendly, it’s way cheaper than Paris (since it’s the NYC of France), and the climate is definitely warmer than in France.

I’d definitely visit Paris again, but not without a guide who’s fluent in French.

Je ne parle pas français

My friend Kathleen and I recently traveled to Paris for a long weekend vacation. While the city was beautiful, it was also much larger than my host city of Sevilla (with 2.2 million inhabitants compared to Sevilla’s roughly 700,000). Walking to most of our destinations was practically impossible. Instead of having only a couple metro lines, the Paris metro has about twelve, which made navigating difficult because we had to switch trains several times per trip.

To top it all off, neither Kathleen nor I know how to speak a word of French. Since we are living in a Spanish city and know how to speak the language, we did not fully realize the difficulties English-speaking tourists encounter in foreign cities. The inability to communicate with anyone honestly bothered me more than getting lost all the time.

For some reason, the hardest monument for us to locate was the Sacre Coeur, a gorgeous cathedral perched atop a hill in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. We stopped to ask at least five different people, who pointed vaguely in the right direction but obviously couldn’t give us genuine directions in French. I’ve never felt so lost and helpless; at least in Spain, when I get lost I can ask for help with confidence in my language skills. The only phrase Kathleen and I knew was “Ou est le Sacre Coeur?

Finally, we stumbled upon a McDonald’s with wi-fi (a valuable commodity in Europe) and sipped two coffees while we studied the map on Kathleen’s phone. Before we left, though, we stopped to ask directions of the employees, just in case Google Maps led us astray. The first man we talked to said, “I don’t live in Paris,” and gestured to his coworker, the young woman who had served us our coffees and spoke English to take our orders.

Pardon, but I don’t speak English,” she told us—in English.

Confused and shocked, we stumbled out the door and onto the Parisian streets again, hoping our Google Map directions were correct. Neither of us had ever encountered such a blatantly rude person in Spain, since most Spaniards in the service industry greet customers with smiles. We had heard the stereotype that the French were snobby and rude, but chosen not to believe it without proof. Now, it seemed that we had some.

Without knowing the mindset of the young Frenchwoman at the McDonald’s, it’s difficult to guess what cultural norms contributed to what we saw as her rudeness. Maybe, being a Parisienne, she was tired of tourists barging into the restaurant asking for directions. Maybe we were the fifth group of tourists that day. Removing all judgment from the encounter, perhaps it went like this from her perspective:

The Americans bought coffee and huddled over their smart phone in the corner. Just when I thought they might leave without burdening us with questions—not even trying to speak French—they approached the counter. My coworker gestured to me and I muttered an insult under my breath. I didn’t feel like straining to understand English today; I had only taken a few classes at university anyway. Everyone always considered me fluent.

Perhaps our assumptions about the responsibilities of service industry workers to be perpetually cheerful and helpful colored our view of the young woman at McDonald’s. Maybe in France, service industry workers are not drilled to greet everyone with a smile and bend over backwards because “the customer is always right.”

When I asked someone familiar with French culture (although they were not French, because I do not study there) whether they thought French people were sometimes rude, they said yes. They warned us to remember that France is not Spain, and that people from northern European countries often have a brusquer attitude. In a way, it’s similar to the assumptions we make about regions in the U.S. Northerners are much more blunt to the point of rudeness, goes the typical wisdom, while southerners tend to be more friendly and welcoming. As with all stereotypes, these characterizations ring somewhat true in in both countries, but they are never absolutely true. For example, the owner of our Air BnB in Paris always greeted us with a “Bonjour” and a smile.

While I loved touring Paris and seeing wonderful museums and monuments, I definitely experienced some major culture shock. I never realized before leaving Spain how difficult dealing with a language barrier can be, since I’ve always lived in countries where I can speak the language. Paris was an eye-opening experience and I would love to return, but next time I’m definitely learning a little French first.

No Justice, No Peace?

People are falling through the holes in the Spanish socialist safety net, and I see them every day on the streets of Sevilla. European countries like Spain are known for their “cradle-to-grave” assistance for struggling workers, but homeless beggars still squat outside grocery stores holding signs proclaiming “sin hogar.

Spain’s severe recession and high unemployment rate (about one in four Spaniards were unemployed in 2014) probably contributes to the homeless problem. Similarly, an astounding quarter of Spanish people live below the poverty line, and an even higher percentage (27%) of children are living in or on the verge of poverty. The austerity measures imposed by Spain’s government as a last-ditch attempt to bail out the sinking economy aren’t helping. No wonder so many people are forced to take to the streets.

justice1As in many countries, justice in Spain mysteriously serves the wealthy; poor people have to take what they can get. According to my host dad, Alberto, “the Spanish justice system in Spain works differently for different people. Rich people can get away with more than poor people can.” It would be nice if Lady Justice were truly blind, but unfortunately money corrupts.

Interestingly enough, neither the death penalty nor life imprisonment exists in Spain. Spanish judges can prescribe long sentences ranging from 20-40 years, but Alberto thinks some crimes should be punished more harshly. In cases of murder or rape, he argued for a life sentence. (He never mentioned the death penalty.)

For the most part, though, my host dad likes the police and considers them an important aspect of life in Spain. To him, the role they play in protecting citizens and punishing criminals outweighs the number of rogue police officers who take advantage of their authority. In Spain, there were 32 complaints of police mistreatment in 2013, and judges frequently dismiss allegations of mistreatment (Human Rights Report 2013).

Many of the problems with the Spanish justice system afflict the U.S. justice system as well. Money drives a lot of the corruption among police officials, and conflicts of interest in law enforcement can be found in many countries. Poor people always take the brunt of injustice, because they can’t pay lawyers to defend themselves and fines weigh most heavily on them.

For example, on top of the racial aspect of the Mike Brown case in Ferguson, MO, the Brown family had trouble pursuing justice because they couldn’t afford to fight for justice in the courts. Imagine what would have happened if the police had shot the eighteen-year-old white son of an oil mogul on that fateful August day last year.

Justice is difficult to administer with absolute fairness, and Spain is no exception. Even fail-safes meant to safeguard against debilitating poverty can fail, as I see every day in Sevilla. No doubt even more homeless people wander the streets of larger cities like Madrid. Unsurprisingly , the justice system works better for the rich than for the poor, just as it does in the U.S. Regardless, at least my host dad seems to think Spain’s police officers are vital to its daily operations. No system is perfect, but the system seems to serve at least the majority of Spaniards well.