Postcard from Abroad: Bienvenidos a Salamanca
When I did a study-abroad program in high school, I clearly remember consulting my host family in Córdoba, Argentina for advice on whether or not I should spend my first semester of college in Salamanca, Spain. Maybe my reasons for choosing the program were wrong— namely, hoping to renew my lease on the South American lifestyle I had come to love, with a slight Spanish lisp, of course—but either way, come September 1, I found myself in Europe, not Maine.
My biggest shock upon arriving was the language. Somehow the “Castillano” of Latin America and “Español” of Spain had managed to morph themselves into two completely different entities, just in time to confuse me. It wasn’t just the addition of the infamous “vosotros” or the substitution of the Argentine “vos” for “tú.” It was going to the grocery store and asking for a jar of peanut butter (“manteca de maní” in Argentina), to be led to the canned corn, and then given a confused look after declining the corn and attempting to describe the legume-based paste (“crema de cacahuete,” if you were curious).
Despite slowly learning to express myself the Spanish way, many of the Spanish students I met seemed indifferent to my existence, and I discovered that, unlike in Córdoba, where people fawned over me as the blonde-haired American, I was nothing special here.
The city, in turn, revealed itself to be full of surprises. In addition to the stereotypically European cobblestoned streets, breath-taking cathedrals and winding alleys enclosed by brownstone apartments (of course with balconies), there were secret gardens and huge parks hidden in the middle of residential areas. Despite finally finding my way within the city without getting lost, I continued to feel spiritually adrift in a strange type of three-way culture shock/reverse culture shock.
To distract myself, I did my best to fill my time. I started tutoring children in English to make some Euros, getting more involved in my classes, and attending classes in Japanese, ballet, Kundalini yoga and sewing.
I began to realize the similarities between the colony and the colonizer, how they both suffered under dictatorships less than 40 years ago, how their histories and cultures intertwine and continue to loosely parallel each other. I met many Spaniards and international students like myself. I traveled within Europe, visiting Portugal and Italy. Things started to make sense, to run smoothly.
The Spain I know is the small, university town. It has the air of being caught in the past, something about seeing babies pushed along in prams, and the get-ups the older women wear to go out for a stroll, and yet is distinctly European and forward: the fashion, the impeccable streets and recycling system, the Eurotrash music played in the clubs.
Thursday and Friday nights the city is alive with students, getting ready for a night of fiesta, or parading in costume if it is the special night of their Faculty. There is an excitement in the air that makes you quicken your pace.
Sundays are completely different. Families strut through the Plaza Mayor in the evening’s last light, sisters dressed in matching outfits, sometimes also matching with their mothers. Old women wear calf-length coats, scarves, gloves, high heels, and walk slowly, admiring the glowing shop fronts or chatting.
This week, the city hung the Christmas lights, angels and stars in white, blue and red every several hundred feet above the main streets surrounding the Plaza.
For me, Salamanca is a magical, eclectic mix, completely opposite from what I was expecting. Come December, however, I’ll be ready to return to the U.S. to spend some much needed time on my own soil, and try my hand at college the traditional way.
-Claire Breining ‘14