When you realize you may not see things the way the people around you do: Reflections on having studied abroad


So your time abroad is nearing its end, and you’re trying your best to make the most of the last bit of time you have here before returning home and having to try to summarize the last several months to friends and family. Of course, you’ll have plenty of funny stories about lost in translation moments and misunderstandings, experiences with culture shock like having fish served to you with the head on (I remember hearing a girl returning home from study abroad recalling this to her friends on a flight). Naturally, your exposure to the Spanish language and a foreign culture will serve you greatly in your future endeavors, but they may serve you in ways you may not even have considered. Many of the lessons you will take back with you may not become apparent until later on, or may influence you without you even realizing it.

For North Americans, the takeaways from your time in Spain will run the gamut. There’s the obvious importance of socializing. The amount of times I’ve heard here “in Spain we work to live, not live to work” is clearly a generalization and a bit hyperbolic, but you won’t have any difficulty finding people in Madrid whose lives revolve around their job. However, in general you can visit any plaza on a weeknight around 11:00 pm when the weather is nice and most North Americans will be astounded by the importance of being outside and socializing. As a food tour guide, I regularly lead tours through Plaza del Angel on weeknights where North American guests are shocked to see that at 9:00 pm the terraces are full of people having a pre-dinner drink, not yet even dining. The importance of the post-work caña or even a Friday pre-lunch drink reconnects people with the fact that those social moments are precious moments for you to enjoy outside of your job. The act of eating itself here carries so much more weight than in North America. Lunch is a sacred moment to separate yourself from work and enjoy that everyday necessity that is dining. I think the majority of North Americans could greatly take a lesson in how to cherish that time in the middle of the day when you gather together at a table to nourish yourself.

When a friend living abroad came back to Madrid to visit family, in conversation I casually asked him what he missed most about Spain. He thought for a few moments. I expected the typical things Spaniards lament about not having abroad: the nice weather (he was living in Berlin at the time, home of the notorious “concrete sky”), navajas (this friend religiously insists on visiting La Casa de las Navajas in Plaza Cascorro to eat razor clams every time he’s in town where we often order two plates), el pueblo (a small village called Maleján in Zaragoza with less than 300 inhabitants where his family owns a small country home, produces wine in the family bodega and his 93 year old great uncle sings wonderful jotas after a long lunch of chuleticas de cordero) or maybe even just his friends and family. But his answer was way more illustrative of some of the key cultural differences between Spain, and the Mediterranean at large, and many other parts of the world. “Small talk,” he oddly responded back in English (the question had been posed in Spanish). The plethora of social interactions you can have in your neighborhood in Spain will connect you to the people you live with. Eavesdrop on vendors at a local market whilst they converse with local abuelas out shopping and you will often be surprised by exchange. Rapport is established and maintained in some of the most surprising of places in Spain, and for many people you may have a hard time finding this upon returning home.

To me, however, it’s clear that what you will most likely benefit the greatest from will be your ability to adapt. Living abroad teaches you to suspend your cultural baggage. Every encounter, every sentence you speak, every bite you take, every gesture you make is formed and interpreted through a unique cultural lense. When you go abroad and travel, you begin to realize you’re essentially wearing cultural glasses, and that they’re different from those around you depending on where you are. Cultural relativism was the term used in my introductory Sociology class by Professor Rick Phillips at the University of North Florida, which was the idea that all activities and beliefs take place within a cultural context. It was explained as glasses we wore with which we saw the world. In recognizing this and in being forced to change your glasses from time to time and challenge the glasses you yourself wear, you begin to grow and cultivate what could be considered a more international perspective. And in being able to recognize this you become more adaptable, more empathetic, and more well rounded.

So as you prepare to return back to family, friends, cars, hometowns, and whatever dish or ingredient you’ve most missed these past few months, make the most of whatever time you have left here. If you’re one of those study abroad students obsessed with visiting every European capital while you’re here, take some time to enjoy Madrid and reflect back on those times when it became most evident that the “glasses” you were wearing were different from those being worn by those around you, for those are some of the most useful moments for you when you begin to understand the complexity and nuance of living in a place that isn’t your home.


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