A Semester in Spain and Europe
Nate Long, Universidad Publica Nacional de Navarra, Spain
Nate Long, Universidad Publica Nacional de Navarra, Spain
Hola, my name is Nate Long and I am going into my senior year at Maryville College. However, the past semester I chose to study abroad in Pamplona, Spain and am now writing this blog to share some of my experiences. I hope to be able to share some insight on many things including what day to day life can be like to traveling and everything in between. Not only that, but I am including some of the photos from my travels to accompany my words.
First things first, I want to give some background information on Pamplona and my decision to go there. The city is located in the north of Spain, about five hours from Madrid by bus, and is the capital of the autonomous community of Navarra. The population of Pamplona is just under 200,000 making it a fairly small city compared to some of the other much larger cities in Spain. As far as my choice of the school, I was required to go to a Spanish speaking country as part of my Spanish major and my first choices for study abroad quickly were narrowed down to Spain because I wanted to be able to travel around Europe. Within the choices of schools in Spain that had classes I could take for my majors, I again chose my school based on location as it is very close to the Pyrenees Mountains, some very nice beaches and about a three-hour train ride from the two largest cities in Spain, Madrid and Barcelona. This is how I came to end up at the Universidad Pública de Navarra.
Eventually after much planning I arrived in Pamplona on January 16th at around 11:00 A.M. to find myself in a rainy town surrounded by mountains, many of which were covered in snow. As I would come to find out this weather was very typical of Pamplona until about mid-spring and the constant rain and clouds were something that would come to really bother me. However, when I arrived I had more immediate problems and my Spanish was quickly put to the test as my main suitcase had been left in New York. This made for an interesting first day because I had to spend it in my same dirty clothes and without a towel or bedsheets until the following day after our orientation. Life in Pamplona quickly got underway with an intensive Spanish course to help those of us that chose to take it to quickly learn or refresh our language skills.
To be completely honest the first weeks in Spain were tough for me as I am a fairly introverted person and struggled to make many real friends. I came to find myself facetiming people from back home as much as possible and not always wanting to go out, but forcing myself to do whenever possible. While there were meetings for internationals to make friends and those outings were enjoyable I never really gained any close friends from them. Then as classes neared and I met with my new advisor at UPNA (my school) I came to see how different the classes were going to be. Most classes at my school are taken two days a week and normally for an hour and a half a day. Not only this but figuring out what classes I was going to take and when turned into a very tough task in itself. Me and one other girl I had met had to spend many hours researching classes and talking with our advisor and some teachers until finally coming to a decision on classes, but ultimately it would not have been possible without the help of our advisor there. After a few weeks though I got myself into daily routine of classes and keeping myself occupied so that I stayed busy.
Then on my second weekend abroad I was finally able to begin one of the things I had been most looking forward to with study abroad, traveling. Along with a group of some Americans and two Australians, we visited San Sebastian, one of most beautiful beaches in Spain. It is quite famous for the two large hills on both sides of the beach, which comes inland in the shape of a large C and has houses, stores and restaurants on all sides, and another large hill protruding from the center of the beach. Having gotten a first taste of travel I could not wait for more.
At this same time classes were officially starting up and the period to drop them was ending (you only had about two weeks to drop classes at UPNA) and I had finally settled on two Spanish classes made specifically for foreigners focusing on language and culture, a class focusing on art and history, a class on how to teach children's literature and finally one class in English over International Law and Politics. Ironically, of all five classes the hardest of these came to be the one I had in English. Another important note I should make about my schedule is that I managed to work it out so I had no classes on Friday which would make it significantly easier to travel. Classes became a very routine thing much like back home except that I came to find that for the most part there was less homework and out of class work in general which surprised me since I had been told to expect harder classes in Spain. However, one thing I was told that did end up coming true was the weight of final exams and projects in Spain which can often account for a much larger percentage of your grade than in the U.S.
As the semester continued I made another trip to Madrid, the capital of Spain, to visit Luke and Sofia which was great since I got to see familiar faces, even if it meant sleeping on a couch for a few days. While I didn’t know it this would be the first of many trips or stops in Madrid to count but while there I went to Madrid with Sofia and got to see many of the sights including Plaza Mayor, Parque del Buen Retiro, Puerta de Sol, Gran Vía, El Prado and the palace of the president of Spain along with many other cool sights and good food.
My next trip would come only two weeks later when I traveled to Tarragona and Barcelona, two famous cities in the northeast of Spain. While there, Luke and I stayed with Alex, another Maryville student studying abroad where I again slept on a couch but it was again worth the experience. The day we arrived by train we explored around Tarragona by walking on the beach, checking out churches, streets and Roman ruins that are famous to the city. The next day we awoke early to catch the one-hour train ride up to Barcelona for the day where we walkedseemingly nonstop from famous site to famous site in the city. All in all, we walked close to seventeen miles and saw sites such as the Camp Nou, Barcelona’s famous beaches, La Sagrada Familia, the site of the 1992 Olympics as well as views of the city from atop mountains and many other things in between. The city was beautiful and given the wide range of views and sites in the city it became one of my favorite places I would visit.
After this I finished up what little school work I had due before the upcoming Semana Santa, which is essentially the Spanish version of spring break. I was due to get ten days off and was planning on spending it in four different cities around Europe. Getting confused (as one does with many things in Europe) I booked my flight one day too early, skipped my last day of classes and took a night bus from Pamplona to Barcelona where I arrived at 6:30 AM and boarded a flight to Brussels, Belgium closer to 10:00 AM. There I met up again with Luke where we took a bus to the hostel we would be staying at. Now for those of us who have never used hostels they are interesting and this was our first time using one.We had an idea of what to expect but quickly found they can be very hit or miss. For those that don't know (like me before this day) hostels are essentially a shared hotel experience where you share a room with other strangers who have also booked that room. The showers and bathrooms are generally shared and most of the people staying there are normally young adults and students with intention of saving money as you can find some rooms for around twenty euros. In the end, Brussels wasn’t that great of a place to visit; however, the one thing that really stood out for me there was the food, specifically Belgian waffles. The following day after seeing many of the sights in Brussels we boarded what would be a slightly scary and very interesting bus ride to Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Amsterdam turned out to be a beautiful city filled with canals and rows of houses bordering them.The city was beautiful to walk through and while it doesn’t have any huge monuments like many other touristy cities, all of the streets are great to walk through and there are some museums and most importantly, there is the Anne Frank house along with its museum. Mostly though the biggest thing to see is just all of the canals lined with multi storied, flat-faced houses, restaurants and stores.
After Amsterdam we flew to London for the low price of thirty-five euros and arrived to a cold, rainy London where we then took a one-hour train ride to King’s Cross Station in London. That morning ended up being a long one full of walking, getting rained on and not eating much food. Eventually though we found some burgers, which completely turned the day around and we got to see some of the sites on one side of the Thames River like the London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s
The following day was Easter and we spent the day visiting more famous sites like the parliament building, Big Ben (which turned out to be covered in scaffolding except for one clock face) and Buckingham Palace, where we watched the changing of the guard with thousands of other people.
The next day we got up early to head back to Madrid, where Luke was studying, and I was planning on staying the majority of the rest of my Semana Santa. We spent the majority of that time just chilling in the town and hanging out and made a day trip to Toledo one night with a girl from the town and after a few days I took a bus back to Pamplona. Back in Pamplona I went back to classes and my daily routine. By this time had figured things out and had learned how to much better shop for food, cook that food and how to pass my time by playing soccer, studying and watching Netflix. I had weekly meetings for one of my classes where my group and I had to create weekly presentations for our class.
A few weeks later my parents came to town on a Thursday and the next day we left for many small towns around northern Spain including Olite, Ujue and Jaca. Not only this but I was finally able to see and do one of the things that I had been wanting to do for most of the semester, visit the Pyrenees mountains. We spent one night in a hotel in Jaca and it turned out to be a tiny but also pretty mountain town within miles of France.The next day we explored the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido in Spain and Pyrenees National Park in France before returning to Spain again and the Valles Occidentales, another large park in Spain. This day turned out to be one of my favorites just exploring of the countryside that was so close and yet so far from my home in Pamplona due to the fact that I didn’t have a car. I got to see beautiful mountains, streams and old forts as well as many other amazing things. The next weekend with my parents we went to Paris for a two days. Paris ended up being a stunning place and exceeded my expectations even for a place that you hear so much about. All of the sights and monuments were beautiful and we even got to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The whole city was beautiful and the food was also delicious and the whole trip was amazing, and on the way back we got to go back through Madrid where I could show my parents around before returning to Pamplona.
After my parents left I really only had two more trips planned in addition to wrapping up my classes and the semester. My first of these two was back to Madrid because one of the other things I had wanted to do before the semester was attend a La Liga game and that opportunity finally presented itself. By staying with Luke again we were able to meet up with Payne, another Maryville alumni living in Spain, and go visit Segovia, another small but historic town in Spain. Later that night Luke and I took the bus back to Madrid and made our way to the Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid versus Celta Vigo. The game ended up being very one-sided as Madrid won 6-0 but the experience was still a dream come true and a great time.
A week later, with a high school friend who studying in Copenhagen, we travelled to Lisbon, Portugal which turned out to be one of my favorite places in Europe. It isn't like London or Paris with super famous monuments and museums but the city itself is beautiful. Lisbon is really close to the beach and built right along a large river that runs inward from the sea. All of the streets are built on hills and covered in colorful houses and shops. The streets largely all seem to end up headed downhill and straight to the coast of the river and have many bright yellow trolley cars running up and down them all.There is a giant bridge that looks exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge and my friend told me the whole city reminded him of San Francisco. All in all, it was a great last trip to another country and a fantastic way to end a semester of travelling.
After all this I had one week of class, the next weekend and a week of exams, so a little less than two weeks, before returning home. I spent most of this time like I had spent my time in Pamplona watching Netflix, playing soccer and getting ready for exams. In the end I ended up having an exam for all but one class and most of them weren’t overly difficult. In reality the hardest one ended up being the only class I had English but even that exam ended up going well and I was finally ready to go home. That Sunday, June 3rd, one of my American friends and I got a taxi to the Pamplona airport and we flew to Madrid. There I said goodbye to two of my friends I had made that were also headed home and then flew to Miami and finally Charlotte, officially ending my study abroad experience.
Throughout the semester there were many things I had to adapt to such as cooking, shopping, living alone and much more. Studying abroad was a challenge in many more ways than I could have imagined but the rewards I gained far outweighed any bad experiences or struggles I had. Before the time abroad I only barely knew how to cook for myself and I had to figure out to do all of those things which also meant going to get the food. Another big thing came with living alone which was something I had never done before. While I was in a dorm it was different because I was surrounded by other kids but I didn’t know most of them so most of my time in the dorm was spent just hanging out in my room.
Furthermore, during my experience abroad I learned about many things including traveling in Europe, independence, language skills and the culture of Spain. The traveling aspect was something that I was quite happy to learn because it is a skill I hope to be able to employ now that I’m back in the U.S., even though many things were different there than here. Next, I also learned about how to live on my own and before the experience I would have already said I was an independent person, but upon arriving in Europe I began to think otherwise. Not having many people to speak to on a daily basis was different and hard at first but as the semester progressed it was something I became much more comfortable with.Now that I have returned I feel like I can again say I’m an independent person as I now feel confident that I can happily spend and pass a good amount of time alone. Lastly, and most importantly, I learned about two very important things, the language and culture of Spain. As a Spanish major learning the language is something absolutely necessary to me and before the study abroad experience I had some language skills but being in Spain helped me practice and learn even more than I expected. Now I can speak confidently and maintain fairly complex conversations with people in Spanish. Another part of the Spanish major is just learning about the culture of Hispanic countries and while living there this was no problem at all. Without doing anything but simply living in the country it's easy to learn about how the people live and interact and even more about how a country works and operates.
If I could go back, there would be two main things that I would look to change about the place where I wanted to spend a semester. First of all, I would look more into the weather of the place where I was going to make sure it was something I was going to enjoy for almost five months of my life. Secondly, I would have gone to a larger town due mainly to the fact that it would have made traveling significantly easier. I say these two things because while in Pamplona I feel like these were two of the decisions that I wished I had looked into beforehand because they were two things that ended up bothering me a good amount while there.
In the end, study abroad was a very challenging but also very rewarding experience. While the semester obviously presented many problems and obstacles it is ultimately an academic journey I would recommend to anyone regardless of whether they’re studying a foreign language or not. Obviously the language skills I learned are extremely important to me, but I learned so much more than just language from things about how a different culture operates to lots of things about myself. Ultimately, study abroad is an amazing opportunity and something I would highly recommend to anyone looking to learn about themselves and others in a truly unique and unforgettable experience.