Walking to the first session of my History of Economics and Contemporary Society class at Universitat de Barcelona, I had the feeling of wanting to conquer the world. I had finally done it—I had gone through with study abroad. After an arduous application process and an even more challenging persuasion game with my parents, I was finally walking down Gran Via dels Corts Catalanes, one of the largest avenues in Barcelona, on my way to embark on a new academic adventure in a different country. The sun was shining, the buildings around me a somehow-cohesive hodge-podge of different whimsical architectural styles, and I was surrounded by students in hip Warby Parker-type glasses, Mohawk-dreadlock breed hairstyles, gauges, and a large variety of alternative outfits. There was no doubt that the student population in Barcelona is funky and decidedly unique, giving them an independent air. This, coupled with being in a city university with no general campus made me feel a freedom and connection with this beautiful and eclectic city that I was excited to explore more in depth. I was not aware, however, that this would mean that I, a cookie-cutter type of girl, used to a unified campus and many opportunities to see classmates and only dropped in for a semester, would have difficulty making real friendships in this city. However, that very freedom that I wanted to explore more held true—not having as many local friends gave me a sort of pass to explore the city to my own liking and the hardships of feeling lonely sometimes made me feel stronger about who I am.
Going back to that first day, I could not help but daydreaming about walking into cute little cafes I passed by on the street with my new friends, having conversations about the amazing vintage shopping scene, or experimental food scene. However, once I walked into my class, what I encountered was anything but encouraging—clumps of students strewn about the classroom in defined friend groups, without even one student looking as nervous and alone as me. I was counting on the “new kid” effect I consistently experienced at Princeton; the flexibility we have with our schedules allows us to take courses outside our department and therefore branch out and meet people outside our concentrations. In Spain, however, the course system works differently. Students tend to take only courses in their departments, because when they choose a major to study it is referred to as a Carrera (a career in Spanish), a track from which they cannot stray. Therefore, these third year students I was so excited to befriend already had well-defined friend groups and had little interest in befriending the “new kid” for a semester.
More than that, there was an immense language barrier I forgot to account for—most of the youth in Barcelona prefers to speak to each other in Catalan, a language I had never learned before. So, even though I was fluent in Spanish, engaging with the students was intimidating because I could not understand Catalan, let alone speak it. Moreover, Catalonia is engaged in an independence movement from Spain, and as the youth in Barcelona is one of the strongest groups involved in the movement, pride in Catalan language and culture was running high. I will admit: I appreciated the political excitement and passionate energy in my direct environment, and being able to observe the millions of people who mobilized in a protest calling for independence that involved the occupation of the two largest avenues in the city. That being said, there was an aversion to speaking Spanish, and therefore an aversion to what I represented—an American girl who had no interest in their language or their culture.
Little did they know that I had a thirst for immersion—even if that meant learning a language and culture that would not be practical outside of my semester abroad. After the initial disillusionment with my social situation in Barcelona, I decided to embrace my new loner status and enjoy my anonymity. I was able to observe the students in detail—what thrift stores were most visited at the moment, what new aspect of the independence movement they were buzzing about, what protests arose, and what bakery they were buying their ensaimadas (like a flat cronut) and chocolate (super thick hot chocolate) from. My newfound anonymity, and comfort with total independence gave me the confidence to go wherever I wanted alone—I would venture into Café Mitte, a café-art gallery fusion and would strike up a conversation with the barista or stall owner. I would walk around la Ciutat Vella (the old city) or Barri de Gracia and just take in the medieval stone walls mixed with Modernist colorful tiling, and the slow hum of the lazy-outdoorsy Mediterranean way. I could spend entire afternoons walking around Carrer de Balmes and Carrer de Valencia, walking in and out of the high-end stores and seeing how the high-end fashion would respond to the high demand for funky fashion in the city. I let myself be drowned in by the thick artistic and innovative inspiration that you could practically taste in the air. From the stimulation I felt in the city, I was inspired to take up writing for fun once again, and felt I could read for pleasure for once in a long while. I would feel no remorse about spending five hours on my Junior Paper in a beautiful sunlit plaza behind my favorite store, Olokmuti and then I would sneak off to dine on churros at Café Petritxol.
Through this initial snub, I learned to become comfortable with being alone, and began to understand myself more in depth. Study abroad could seem like a fantastic experience for anyone involved with endless fun, but what made the experience so amazing for me is not the fact that I was having endless fun. What made the experience a once in a lifetime opportunity were the hardships I endured as I live outside a protected environment for half a year, and realized that I could overcome these hardships and would be able to hold my own once I graduate. Moreover, instead of trying to prove to everyone how much I know about their own culture, I started to let the places speak to me and show me what they had to offer, which really enriched my travels outside of Barcelona. Instead of spilling my Flat Americano onto the Barcelona city-scape, I drank various shots of espresso, or cortados, and soaked in all that I could get under the Mediterranean sun. Those cortados keep me going even today—their effect will never fade.
~Isabella Peraertz '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler