Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 24, 2013

Rooted and rootless in Spain

(Andrei Papancea/TKS)

(Andrei Papancea/TKS)

Being abroad for almost five months now has taught me something I’d never thought I’d learn: I miss my family. Normally, I can spend weeks and months without talking to them. There have been entire terms at Knox where I haven’t spoken with my family solely because I didn’t have the time to. Yet, being on another continent without the option of jumping on a train home has opened my eyes. At the same time, I know they are an email away and that the distance makes you stronger Ñ makes it more special when you come home to them at the end of your time overseas to share your experiences within the comforts of home. Home is just that in this sense: comfort.

There’s a feeling of unspoken isolation that exists within the Barcelona program. It’s not just because we are living on another continent with host families in a foreign language. While those three factors bare the brunt of any uncomfortable feelings many people participating in the program have, I believe that Knox itself subscribes to the idea that isolation is paramount. Knox in Barcelona is almost exactly like Knox in Galesburg. I say this because we are still isolated, just not geographically. The classes we take are only open to Knox students, or people from other U.S. universities who are participating in the Knox program. You can take a University of Barcelona class — as long as it fits into your schedule, is taught in a language you know and as long as you’re here for the correct amount of time, as the university is on semesters and the Knox program still works on trimesters.

This is rather disheartening. It creates the idea that you aren’t good enough to be in classes with native speakers. It also sends the message to other students that you want to be isolated.For example, Knox could easily open up our classes that don’t revolve around language learning to other University of Barcelona students. I’m sure at least one student would sign up to take a class about Barcelona’s construct of the novel or how film has progressed within the region. You go between three or four rooms together as one, big, unapproachable group, often speaking in English because very few people have the drive to try and communicate in Spanish when the teachers aren’t looking. Yes, you get out what you put in. That doesn’t mean that the college shouldn’t give you every opportunity possible to improve.

Yet, this doesn’t happen. Instead, we are encouraged to set up intercambios, or language partners, which are actually quite enjoyable. (Do it!) You sign up through an office within the university and then often begin by exchanging emails with someone they’ve matched you with. After, you and your partner can choose to meet at a café or in a park to talk for specific amounts of time in Spanish and English in order to help each other improve. Quite a few of my program mates have made friends this way. It’s mostly based on luck of the draw. And while meeting with native speakers outside of class shows your drive to improve, having them in class itself would help to vary the opinion. Not having outsiders in class only serves to perpetuate the thought processes we’ve already constructed and brought with us.

Obviously, another way to get involved abroad is to go out and have a little bit of fun. Try the discos. Try the bars. Try them on different nights. Surely, you’re going to find something you like.  I’ve found that going out in smaller groups helps if you want to meet other people as it’s less intimidating to approach or be approached when the numbers are fewer. I know I’ve met some very interesting people while standing in a club waiting for my friend to get out of the bathroom. I ended up dating one of them for the majority of my stay in Barcelona.

Putting down roots in Barcelona is one of the most contradictory things I’ve encountered in my life so far. On the one hand, I want to make new friends and practice my Spanish. It’s part of the experience. On the other hand, I want to stay isolated and keep everything distant so I don’t miss it, as my time in this city, for the time being, is limited. I took a personal risk when I decided to start a relationship with someone who lives here Ñ the risk that I would miss him after leaving. Clearly, it was a risk well worth taking. The friends I’ve made here who aren’t coming back to the States with me come June are fantastic people. By getting involved outside of class — as not having natives in class really does push you to seek them out yourself — I’ve learned how to become more independent. I’ve also learned that in the future when I will, most likely, have to relocate for a job or graduate school, a new city doesn’t pose as much of a threat as I originally perceived. It’s very easy to make friends. You just have to be open to the concept of being open.

Elizabeth Guth

Tags:  Galesburg isolation Knox language Spain study abroad university of barcelona

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