Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Major Change of Pace

Of the six of us in the Teacher Development Program with CIEE, four of us are from the Chicagoland area, and one is from Boston.  We may not live in the city per se, but we have a basic understanding of what city life entails.  Even in the suburbs we see the effects of the morning and afternoon commute and the general hustle and bustle of busy life.  So naturally, knowing that Sevilla was one of the largest cities in Spain, I expected city life here to be pretty comparable.  Little did I know, aside from crazy drivers and the complexities of public transportation, city life in Spain couldn't be more different.  

In our CIEE student handbook and all of the pre-departure information we were given, they told us numerous times that the general pace of daily life was very different here than in the United States.  I expected as much; not every city can be like Chicago or Boston.  What I didn't realize until I arrived in Sevilla was that they really were not joking.  I have never seen a more relaxed city, and it's a beautiful thing.

One of the things we learned in high school when talking about Spanish culture is siesta.  Siesta is the spanish word for "nap," and what we learned from our textbooks was that it was a time during the afternoon where everyone takes a break and goes home to rest.  That seems simple enough--and sounds like a great concept to most high school and college students--but it's really a lot more than that.  From approximately 2:00 to 5:00, the entire city pretty much shuts down.  Shops, restaurants, and many other businesses close during this time.  People return to their houses to eat lunch, relax, and of course, take a nap.  I'll admit, I've indulged in my fair share of "siestas" in the last three weeks.  For me, it was (and still is) kind of a strange feeling to have nothing to do for that block of time.  I still find myself wanting to go shopping or something in the afternoon, only to remember that nothing is open.  Siesta is one of those parts of Spanish culture that doesn't seem to translate.  My orientation guide, Rafa, called it the "national sport" of Spain.  Brettyn, one of the girls in my program, talked to someone who didn't believe that we don't have siesta in the United States.  He didn't understand how Americans were portrayed as so busy and productive, but then he said it must be because we never sleep.  

As you walk the streets of Sevilla, one of the most common phrases you will hear people use is "no pasa nada."  It basically means "no big deal" or "no worries" (the "hakuna matata" of Spain, if you will).  It is pretty much the unofficial motto of the city.  They use it in all contexts: running late? no pasa nada; spill your drink? no pasa nada; forget something? no pasa nada.  Sevillans have a generally laid-back attitude with regards to most things, which was definitely something I needed to adjust to.  For those of you that know me personally, you can understand why.

My first real dose of this change came from the director of the Teaching Development program, Carolina (Caro).  During orientation week, we had several meetings having to do with housing, health and safety, and other subjects intended to help us adjust to our new surroundings.  During one of our academic sessions, Caro sat down with the six of us to talk about our goals for the semester.  When asked, we responded just like one might expect.  Things like "improve my Spanish" and "learn more about the Spanish culture" were obvious goals that we all shared.  After we had exhausted the list of all the things we wanted to learn and see, Caro told us that we had forgotten one very important goal.  We all looked around the room at each other at this point, trying to figure out what we could have possibly forgotten.  Caro took the dry erase marker and wrote in big, bold letters: DIVERTIRME (have fun).  That was something we weren't really expecting coming from the person who is in charge of our academic program.  She looked around at the expressions on our faces and smiled at us.  She said she was glad that we had thought thoroughly about our academic goals for our time in Sevilla, as that's the primary reason why we're here.  However, she also explained to us that this is going to be one of the greatest experiences of our entire lives, and that we need to enjoy it.  One thing that she said to us during that meeting will stay in the back of my mind throughout the semester: "If you're having fun, everything else will come naturally."  I know this sounds less-than-serious on the academic front, but in a way I think she knew that we're all serious students who know when it's time to buckle down and get work done.  She wasn't trying to turn our priorities around; she wants us to approach our learning from a different perspective--to live it.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sitting on History: Watching Textbooks Come to Life

In school, we spend most of our years of history/social studies classes learning and re-learning the same 400-or-so years of history over and over again.  Eventually, I think we get desensitized to it all.  So, the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower, then we fought the British, then we fought ourselves, and 44 presidents later here we are.  The history of the United States is nothing more than a haiku when compared the extensive novel that is European history.  During my first two weeks of class in Sevilla, I am attempting to retain at least a general idea of the history of Spain--starting with the Roman Empire around 200 B.C. and ending with contemporary history of the 20th century.  It's a daunting task, and I know I'll walk away from this class with merely a short glimpse of the story of Spanish history, but there is still so much more to learn after the final exam.  After all, living in Sevilla, there are hundreds of years' worth of beautiful history right under my feet.

standing over an ancient Roman wall found under the streets of Sevilla

Let's start with the history that I encounter in my daily life here in Sevilla.  For example, the CIEE building where all of my classes take place is a renovated palace that was originally built in 1725.  They even still call it "el palacio" (the palace).  The University of Sevilla, also connected with the program, was established in the 16th century.  It was originally a tobacco factory, and it even says "Royal Tobacco Factory/University of Sevilla" on some maps.  Many of the monuments that I have visited so far with my orientation group and my history class pre-date what we learn in our history books in the U.S.  

aerial view of the courtyard at "el palacio"
Main entrance to the University of Sevilla

Some of the other places I've seen in my first two weeks here include the birthplace of Diego Velásquez, the tomb of Christopher Columbus, and the building that used to be a prison where Miguel de Cervantes was incarcerated and wrote part of "El Quijote," just to name a few.  Seeing these hints of history tucked around every corner of the city make me wonder what the future of the United States will be like.  Our country might be in its infant stage compared to most of Europe, but what will they say about us in another 500 years or so?  Will people tour the city of Chicago someday and view it the same way we view ancient Roman ruins?  Is our system of government going to be studied like we study the reign of the Roman Emperors or the Muslim Kings?  As I sit at my desk reading textbooks that tell the stories of the hundreds of years of history that came before me, the events going on throughout the world will write the history books for future generations.  

La Giralda was originally constructed as part of a mosque,
but was later converted by the Christians into
a bell tower for the Cathedral.  In this photo you can see
it situated between the Cathedral on the left, and the remaining
portion of the Mosque on the right.
Watching my homework come to life is an experience that I've never had in the past.  When we read about the Civil War, for example, there aren't many places we can go to completely immerse ourselves in that piece of history (other than museums, but that's too easy).  This past week, I learned about the Roman Empire's impact on the Iberian Peninsula, then visited the remains of an ancient Roman city later that same day.  Yesterday, we discussed the mixing of cultures that is so very common in Spain. By that afternoon, we had climbed to the top of a tower (La Giralda) that once served as part of the Great Mosque of Sevilla, but now is one of the crowning glories of the third largest Cathedral in the world.  The authenticity that seeing these monuments brings to the learning experience is invaluable.  I don't think I will ever be able to look at history the same way again, now that I have seen it come alive before my eyes.  


Friday, September 6, 2013

Cultural Adjustment

These last few days have been a whirlwind of travel and lots of walking to get to know my new city.  I have learned so much in such a short amount of time already.  I'm getting used to hearing and seeing Spanish everywhere, so much so that I actually have to concentrate to make sure I write this all in English.  After meeting all these new people and getting acclimated to a new culture, there is one thing I have learned this week that I really want to share with you all.

I knew when I arrived in Spain that this semester was going to push me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one.  I have to rely on a language that I haven't spoken in four months (and have never spoken extensively outside of an academic setting).  I'm living in a new city that I have to learn to navigate on my own when I've never really had to do so outside of the Chicago suburbs and the Bloomington-Normal area.  Everywhere I go I find something else that's different from what I'm used to: people walking in the middle of the street until they see a car coming, shops closing down for hours during the middle of the day, children running around in the streets in the middle of the night.  The list goes on.  The one thing that is sticking with me, though, is something that one of our Student Services Directors told us yesterday.  He gave some great advice for adjusting to a new culture.  Of course, when he told us this it was all in Spanish, and for some reason I think that made it sound even better, but I'll do the best I can to translate.

We were sitting in the university's bar--yes, there is a bar INSIDE the university where students can get something to eat or drink and sit and chat between classes--and our friend Abraham from CIEE was giving us a talk about diversity.  He pointed to the glass of coke in front of him and said, "When I look here, I see this side of the glass, but if Brettyn [the girl sitting across from him] looks at it, she sees the other side.  It's still the same glass, right? We just see it different ways.  It is what it is, no matter how you look at it."  So basically he was pointing out to us that every culture appears different depending on your point of view.  Being American, I am seeing all of these cultural differences from an outsiders point of view, just as a Spaniard in the U.S. would see our culture.  Instead of focusing on which side of the glass we are seeing, we need to choose to see the glass as a whole and appreciate it for what it is.

Abraham also reminded us that we will always be American, no matter how hard we try to fit in to the Spanish culture.  But instead of seeing it as a handicap, we should embrace the fact that we are here, in this moment, and make the best of it.  So instead of trying to adapt and become more like the Spaniards, my goal this semester is to allow the people and the city of Sevilla to open my eyes to all aspects of the culture.  And although I can't adopt them as my own, I can respect and appreciate them just the same.  Living in Sevilla will not make me Spanish, but it will make me a better student, teacher, and a more culturally aware person overall.