Opinion On Abroad: A Semester in Spain


Molly Chandler  Journal Contributor

It’s true that the scene would be more flattering as a silhouette, but it has a peculiar beauty. From where I sit on a park bench, I can see a handful of people, their junk, and their treasure splashed with the pink light of sunrise. An old woman has wrapped herself in black coats and blankets in an effort to keep the cold a good distance from her skin, but she affords her bear fingers the effort of setting out whatever goods she has to sell. A man in a green coat and earmuffs is heckling her, laughing; speaking in an accent I can’t understand. She swats the air in his direction and cackles.

As more vendors trickle down the sidewalks into the main streets the sound of yelling and laughing rises with the sun, echoing on the cobblestone and brick, arcane and wild in the last of the darkness. By the time day breaks over us the vendors have organized themselves in neat lines and lowered their voices as the shoppers arrive and begin to run their hands over books, bottles, coats, and records.

El Rastro, the market, sprawls itself out a few streets over from La Latina station in Madrid every Sunday. Our host señora’s brother, she told us, goes every week before dawn in search of first edition books to add to his collection. Over dinner, she usually tells us quite a bit, makes suggestions of places to travel or things to read, and sometimes gets up from the table to illustrate a story she was trying to tell about the African dance class her daughter is taking in Seville.

My roommate and I train our eyes on her lips as we try to understand and translate her Spanish to English in our heads. I’m proud to say that every day it gets just a little bit easier, and that’s awesome, because at first everything was really difficult. Contrary to what I believed before departing, culture shock is a very real thing, and it’s almost debilitating.

The curious traveler, however, will inevitably find his or herself going through the motions of cultural immersion even before they realize it’s happening. By the curious traveler I guess I mean me. Since I’ve been here, I’ve found myself at the top of the Jiralda tower in Seville, sinking into the mud hiking up to the Sacromonte caves, and trying escargot at a tapas bar with some people from the hostel where I stayed a weekend in Granada.

I do not yet know Spain in all its beauty and complexity, but in the three weeks we’ve been here, the people and places have been calling to us, inviting us to experience the country—not a Spain I can describe, not the one I’ve been looking at on a map or even the one in all the postcards with “bienvenidos” scrawled across the bottom. Spain is a culture and an identity. Spain is a way of living.