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.

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.