10 New Words I Learned in Spain

If you are looking to travel to Spain or simply just want to boost your Spanish vocabulary, then this is the post for you! I spent a semester in Madrid and learned new words during my stay. Some of these words are used in other Latin American countries; some are just specific to Spain. I did not know any of these words, having mainly studied Latin American Spanish in school and at home. There is not a big difference between Latin American Spanish and Spanish from Spain. Like different dialects of English, you can still understand each other even if you use different words. Someone may poke fun at you for it occasionally but in the end, there will not be a language barrier. Here are some words I picked up while in Spain:

aseos – Toilets/bathroom. You may have learned the word servicios or the phrase “Dónde está el baño?” You can use any of these but if you ate too many churros and are about to burst, look for a sign that says aseos. This is a useful one to know when you really gotta go!

coche – This was a word I learned in high school but I thought I would throw in anyway. I have used the word carro to talk about a car. In Spain, that is used for talking about a baby carriage whereas in Latin America, it is the opposite. I would recommend using the word coche because I have gotten weird looks from people who thought I was asking for motion sickness medication to travel in a baby stroller.

echar una foto/hacer una foto – I have always used the phrase tomar una foto to talk about taking pictures but I know some people in Latin America also say sacar una foto. However, in Spain they use the phrases echar una foto or hacer una foto.

nevera – I tend to lean towards using Latin American words in Spanish as they are closer to English (ex. refrigeradora). This is the word for refrigerator in some Latin American countries as well as in Spain. My host mom used this word often.

echar de menos – Want to tell someone back home that you miss them in Spanish? This is a phrase people learn in high school as well as the less commonly used (in Spain) counterpart: extrañar.

vale – This word is an affirmation usually used to say “ok” when someone tells you something.

guay – ¡Qué guay! “Cool!” You may find yourself using this one a lot.

deberes – Tarea or known in English as “homework.” I have heard that it is used in some Latin American countries as well.

planta – This one confused me during my first couple of days in Spain. While it is used to refer to a plant in English, in Spain, it also means the floor of a building. Because I did not know this at first, I was a little lost when I thought people were telling me that my classroom was on the third plant.

Even though you may be used to doing or saying things a certain way, it is always best to adapt to the culture you are in if you really want to get along. When in Rome…

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6 Things You Should Know Before Going Abroad

You will grow up. You will have to become independent in more ways than you would have thought when you went away to college for the first time. It means learning the life skills you were never taught in school such as reading a map, learning how to interact with people who live a culture completely different from yours, and handling stressful last-minute situations like when you almost miss your bus back home or your flight to a weekend trip.

You are in someone else’s territory, literally. Think of being invited on vacation with someone and their family or staying over someone else’s house. Adjustments will have to be made when you change up your routine. The programs I did in Spain and France were only with American students. Some students had a harder time adjusting to being in a different country than others. You are not in the United States. Some places do have a Starbucks on every corner. Some places don’t have a Starbucks at all. It may not sound like a big problem, but I have met people who had a hard time adjusting to Spain and France because they compared it to the United States. They would get frustrated over the small coffee cup sizes or the fact the waiters didn’t constantly check up on you. They said they missed the United States and wished they were home. You will be with many people who are used to living a life that is different from yours. You can’t change them. You will have to adjust to how they are living. Knowing that and applying that will help you truly enjoy yourself.

Consider saving an old smartphone and bringing it. Some people will recommend to buy a pay-as-you-go phone abroad. I brought my current phone with me and bought a SIM card because I knew I was going to be careful with it. If you don’t want to run the risk of losing your phone or having it stolen, you should save your old smartphone and bring it with you. That way, you will be able to have the luxury of having a smartphone without buying a phone. You will also become a master at finding wifi.

You may not always get along with your host family. I already wrote a post on my homestay experiences, so I won’t go into detail on this one. However, before going abroad I had read about many people who got along with their family so much that they are continuing to stay in contact with them even after returning home. As much as you may hear that, that will not always be the case. Even so, it is still a great experience that I believe anyone who is studying abroad should look into.

Not all stereotypes are true. Do not pay attention to everything you read online. I like to be as best prepared as I can be before getting myself into a situation. Before going overseas, I researched everything from students’ experiences to what they packed to how safe Spain and France are. Even though every student’s experiences will be unique, I heard many of the same stereotypes: Europeans only wear dark colors, they don’t wear shorts, they don’t wear sneakers, the French are cold, etc. Not all of this is true. If you would like to see a different perspective based on my personal experiences, you can read my other posts.

It may not be what you think; it may be more. You hear everyone say that you will see new places, meet new people, and better your language skills, but you do not really hear about the person’s expectations. I have met Americans who were disappointed by their abroad experience because it wasn’t all they thought it would be. Other American students were thrilled because it exceeded their expectations. The best thing you can do is try not to go somewhere new with expectations of the place or the people. People will tell you their thoughts on the place or the people based on their experiences. You won’t have the same experiences. Ultimately, study abroad is what you make it, so make it count.

My Homestay Experiences

As the old saying goes: You don’t choose your family. Just like many situations in life, you do not get to choose what happens to you. You can only choose what you will do when you are thrown in those situations. In the case of studying abroad, if you decide to do a homestay, you don’t get to choose your family either. I had heard many positive things about staying with a host family. For one thing, it boosts your language ability. It should also give you more of an authentic cultural experience. You are living under someone else’s roof, so it gives you less liberty to try to keep living the way you did back in the States, or any other country.

I had heard from people and read many things online about how students loved their homestays, how their host families would take them places, and they would share great memories together. At the end of the semester, they said they would stay in contact with their family for years to come. On the other hand, I have also heard homestay horror stories. I have experienced living with two host families: the first one being in Madrid, Spain and the second one being in Nantes, France. Both were unique and overall positive experiences, but definitely not the experience that I had started off with in this paragraph.

Spain

I lived with a woman in her 70s and an American roommate. My host mom was a very sweet woman. Our program allowed us to have a homemade lunch with her every day. The three of us would sit around the table and watch the news, while eating and talking about our day. Sometimes my roommate and I would be trying to have a conversation with her and she would respond, “¡Mira!” (Look!) while pointing to the television, totally tuning the conversation out. There was no language barrier between us and her, which was great! However, there were times where we would tell her one thing, and she would respond by saying something completely unrelated, but I think the TV being on played a role in that.

There is a stereotype that Spanish host mothers make their students eat a lot of food. This stereotype, in my case, was true. We got huge meals for lunch, since lunch is their biggest meal of the day. I tried to make sure I got a little bit of everything without eating to the point of feeling sick. My host mom would always tell me to eat more and insisted that I could do it even when I said that I could not. I loved her cooking but this would be my biggest complaint about living there. She was a very caring person and that probably tied into her making sure my roommate and I were eating enough. I remember for my birthday, she bought me a gift, a cake, and even had me try champagne! She did not have to do any of that but she did it anyway. I will never forget that.

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France

My experience in France was a little bit different. I lived with a couple in their 60s. They had kids who were all grown up and had families of their own, so it was just the three of us in the house, except for when any of the children and grandchildren came to visit. According to my program’s contract, we got to have dinner together five times a week, and they stuck to that rule.

I was content with my living situation and found that I got along well with my host parents, but there were definitely some cultural differences, one of them being that they were not used to living with an introvert. I could be out all day because of classes and spending time with friends but when I came home at 7:30 or 8:00 on a weekday for dinner, I was pretty much done with my day. As a host parent, I understand that it is their job to encourage students to go out and experience the culture and place that they are living in. However, this “encouragement” felt more like a pressure at times. They would constantly be asking me about what I was going to do. They would talk about how their previous host students were out until 3 a.m. going clubbing. They would ask me about my weekend plans on Tuesday. If I did not already know what I was going to be doing, which I never usually had anything planned out that far ahead of time, they would be surprised. There was one time where I was really sick and instead of telling me to rest, they wanted me to go out. I really wanted to get to know my host family more, but I did not get to spend much time with them, because they were always pressuring me to be out of the house.

I got to know my friends’ host families well because they were eager to get to know their host students’ friends. I was offered meals at their house. I was encouraged to stay the night. I had also heard about my friends getting extra meals at their house even though it was not in the contract. One thing that the contract did do was encourage host families to have their student invite friends over and to take their student places with them. I did not think anything of it until I realized that all my friends were having these experiences that I was lacking. It did not bother me much in the beginning, because I was just happy to be with a host family that seemed nice. It started to bother me more when it seemed like they wanted me out of the house all the time.

I feel this is important to note if you would ever consider doing a homestay: understand your host family has a life and family as well. This may mean or include their need to watch grandchildren or have the entire family visit during holidays or at any point during your stay. This will mean a definite change in your routine, as the bathrooms are not available as often and your soap and toothpaste may go missing.

One thing that is so important when studying overseas, especially if you are from the U.S., is to be aware that you are not in the U.S. anymore. Do not expect the country to be just like your country. Do not expect the culture to be the same, the people to be the same, and the same chain restaurants to be everywhere. You have to adapt to where you are going, not the other way around. Based on my experiences, I think living with a host family is such a cool opportunity that you should take advantage of if you get the chance. It may be different from the independence you are used to, but it is so worth it.

Getting a Cellphone Abroad: Orange

Being able to communicate, not only with my host family in both Spain and France, but also with my friends and family back home was very important to me. Figuring out what to do about the cellphone issue abroad was something I had tried figuring out long before even getting on the plane. I knew I would be primarily be communicating through Whatsapp, so data was a must. I asked many students who had studied abroad and went online to see what the best solution would be. Do I get an international plan or do I get a SIM card and put it in my phone?

I found out from my carrier in the United States that getting an international plan would be expensive, so that was out of the question. During orientation week in Spain, I went with some of the other students in my program to get a phone. Many students ended up buying a small pay-as-you-go phone. I decided I wanted to put a Spanish SIM card into my smartphone. I ended up buying one from the carrier Orange.

Every month I paid 15€ to get 2 GB of data. I had a certain amount of credit on my phone to make calls and send texts but I didn’t really end up using it. For me, as long as I could use Whatsapp and Google Maps, I was fine. This plan worked out pretty well for me until December, specifically my last few weeks in Spain. My phone shut off my data, even though when I looked at it I knew that I did not use up 2 GB. I always had extra data remaining that I would lose at the end of the month when I had to go recharge my phone, so I knew this was not normal. Long story short: it took me losing at least 10€-15€ to find out that I had a faulty SIM card, which was weird considering I never had a problem with it until that point. I ended up finding out that I accumulated 2 GB of data that I was not able to use. Good thing it was my last couple of weeks in Madrid. As the song in Frozen goes, I just “let it go.”

In France, it was recommended that students use Orange. As much as I did not want to, I decided to give it another chance and bought a French SIM card. The plans in France were not the same as the plans offered in Spain. The only plan I could get that would provide data was a 20€ plan that would give me unlimited calls/texts and 600Mo or (1 GB, or so I was told) of data. So far, I have had to recharge my phone twice before the month was up even though I was tracking my data usage and knew that I did not use up all my data. I wish there was a way to just buy data and not this 20€ unlimited phone plan, considering I almost never make calls and my phone cannot send text messages for some reason. I have tried to go to Orange and get these problems fixed but no one has been helpful. As of right now, I ran out of data two weeks before having to recharge my phone, so I waited until this morning to pay the 20€. I am beyond frustrated with this phone company and it seems as though I am not the only student having problems with it. However, I do not know a lot about how pay-as-you-go plans work. I will stick with this same plan for the next month or so before I go back to the United States. If I were staying here longer then I would try harder to find a solution but it isn’t worth it.

Safety in Madrid

Bad things happen in life. They can happen whether you’re looking for trouble or even if you’re just sitting on your couch watching TV. Sometimes certain situations can be avoided but other times they’re inevitable. Some of my family and friends had expressed to me their fear for me going abroad. I’ve heard quite a few times that the world is unsafe and that there are crazy people. While that is true, especially in certain parts of the world more than others, I was going to be studying in Madrid, Spain. I hadn’t heard anything on the news recently about it but being the overly cautious person I am, I did my research and I did it well. I may have even over-researched.

Everything I had read online said that Madrid was a generally safe city. The only crime I kept seeing mentioned was pickpocketing. I read blog posts that said how bad it was and that there would even be groups of pickpockets working together that would try to distract you while their buddy steals your wallet. Some websites said that the pickpockets would even follow you from afar and even wait until you crossed the street to get you. This worried me, so I went online and ordered an anti-theft purse, which has worked out wonderfully! I would totally recommend getting one if you’re traveling. However, I want to add that in the three and a half months I was there, I was not pickpocketed and I was safe.

My biggest advice is what you’ll read anywhere online: be alert; use your head. Try not to look like a tourist. Look like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. If you really don’t know where you’re going then ask someone. Most people will be glad to help you and as I’ve said, I’ve ran into a decent amount of people who will give directions in English.

I felt safe living in the city and getting around on my own. I walked home alone at night but I didn’t do things I wouldn’t have done back in the U.S., for example, walk on streets that aren’t busy. I was careful anywhere I had gone in Spain and anywhere else I have been to in Europe and I was okay. I can’t speak for everyone and all of Europe but these have been my personal experiences. Sometimes, bad things can happen that can’t always be helped but I don’t think that should stop anyone from going abroad, especially to Madrid.

 

Weird but Practical Travel Advice

Before going to Madrid last semester, I did my research. I read many travel blogs and watched many YouTube videos on travel. I even reached out to students who have studied in my program before me. However, as prepared as you think you can be, you will always learn something new. Maybe you will even learn something that the other people didn’t. These are some tips that may sound very odd, but believe it or not, have helped me.

Always keep a tissue in your pocket. My nose runs whenever it’s cold outside, so I usually have one on me for that reason, but I have found that it has come in handy for other situations. You are bound to run into some instances where there is no toilet paper in the bathroom. This is where your pocket tissue comes in handy. Many a time has this happened.

Don’t pack school supplies. So many people suggest not packing school supplies until you get to Europe and realize that 10 cent folders and notebooks do not exist here. Also, I know some people who are picky about what kind of paper they write on. If you are looking for regular lined paper or blank pages, it may be harder to find in Europe, at least from my personal experience. Packing one or two notebooks and one or two folders really doesn’t take up a lot of space. When I went to Spain, I had to spend more money on school supplies than I would have liked. In France, I already had a couple of notebooks and folders, so I didn’t need to spend money and I still had room in my suitcase.

Underpacking is a thing. You may be reading this post and thinking that nothing I am saying is helpful but the amount of times I have heard people in my program, specifically girls, saying that they underpacked was more than I would have thought. Why? We all read online articles emphasizing overpacking being a problem. Yes, you’ll want to leave room for clothes you may buy wherever you are studying and you will definitely want room for gifts to get people, but bring more than just a few things.

Take advantage of free stuff in hotels. I love those small lotions you get in hotel rooms because I could always have lotion handy in my purse whenever my hands would get dry. Now I also love the little soap and shampoo/conditioner they give you in hotels. If you plan on traveling on your own during your semester abroad and have to take a plane, stocking up on free hotel items is a great idea. You will never run out of necessary items on a trip and you do not have to worry about the amount being too much to go through security.

Take a night bus. This is probably the only thing on my list that is not weird. I am not a fan of night buses because I can never sleep on them, however I have taken them many times and can say that they are cheaper. They also give you a whole extra day wherever you are going, considering you will arrive at six or seven in the morning.

Do you have any weird tips when it comes to packing or traveling?

Here We Go Again: Studying Abroad Twice

One month ago, I landed at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. After having already spent a semester abroad, I didn’t know what to expect for the coming semester. I had returned home for a two-week break, which went by so fast. Although I arrived to France with a new confidence that I didn’t have when going to Spain, I also had some familiar feelings rushing through me: excitement, doubt, curiosity, sadness, and everything in between. One thing I made sure to do was to separate this experience from my previous semester. Although I would be in a program similar to the one I was in Spain, I knew my experience would be different. I would be in a new place with new people and a new language. It’s so strange though how everyone has a unique experience but goes through very similar feelings. I thought I would be different from most people in my program, considering I had done this once before, but I found myself still being able to relate to others.

What are some things I have learned since my first semester abroad?

It goes by fast, and because the semester will go by fast, don’t take it for granted. The first few weeks might not feel like they are going by fast when you are in the process of making friends and experiencing homesickness, but once classes start, time flies and you find yourself trying to keep up with it. I’m already planning trips for the next couple of months, trying to make sure I get to see all the places that I want to go to.

I also learned how important it is to take care of myself and how much it can affect the overall study abroad experience. Last semester, I traveled every weekend. It was great, but I didn’t get the rest I needed. I took many night buses and ended up not sleeping much if at all and I’d be going and going all day. During the week, I had school. Lack of sleep really affects my mood and I can already see a difference between my attitude this semester and what I was like last semester. Resting and balancing time are so important.

Both of my experiences overseas are unique and I wouldn’t take them back. In Spain I learned a lot about what it was like to live in a city, travel (in groups, alone, booking lodging), and integrate into a place that I didn’t know at all through learning about different customs and trying to create my own daily routine. In Nantes, I know what it’s like to have to go buy a SIM card using a foreign language, to not run every time I am crossing the street, to get the server’s attention if I actually want to order something or pay for my meal, and to not leave a tip, all because these things were new to me last semester but no longer are. I still have to make adjustments, there is still a lot to learn, I still miss my family and friends, but now that I have done it before, it makes this time easier.