Indiana University Overseas Study

MaryO

A view of sprawling Barcelona from Gaudi's Parc Güell

A view of sprawling Barcelona from Gaudi’s Parc Güell

Uncovering Barcelona is like Christmas morning.

As I type this, I frown; Christmas morning doesn’t speak Spanish and it certainly doesn’t feel so confusing. So allow me to rephrase my simile. Uncovering Barcelona has provided me with the thrills and rewards that Christmas promises.

After months of anxiously awaiting the day of my arrival to Barcelona, I’ve finished my first week here. In many ways, familiarizing myself with the city, my home and the program has felt like a continuous holiday. However, like a child on Christmas morning, my near-perfect week has been laced with a tinge of disappointment. But unlike the child, I’m not upset with what I’ve gotten. I’m disappointed in myself.

Having said this, I owe further explanation for my disappointment. Any frustration I’ve felt abroad is traced to action (or inaction, really) that I took in America before I departed. Understandably, as I was preparing to study abroad, I packed and planned with a series of expectations in mind. Unfortunately for me, these expectations were rooted in little research, and so they haven’t materialized as I envisioned. I will say, however, that while I’m less than happy that some of my preparations were inadequate, I am not disappointed in my experience.

The discrepancy between my expectations and my experience has manifested in a number of ways. I felt my first jolt of surprise during the plane ride over, before I even landed in Barcelona. As the plane descended and the city became clear through the clouds, I was a bit thrown off. In America, a city of Barcelona’s size (a population of over 1.6 million people) would surely boast skyscrapers and modern engineering. Somehow, I expected this type of American city planning in conjunction with the picturesque architecture of a Mediterranean town. Having been here for a week, I am thrilled with the reality of Barcelona; modern technology allows for convenient transportation throughout the vast city, but it does not dominate the streets with loud electric ads. The history and originality of the city isn’t lessened by technology in a way that I feared.

When I think of a big city in America, I expect the good things to exist in harmony with the bad, and such was my expectation for Barcelona. Miraculously, this is not the case. Unlike a major city in America, Barcelona is vibrant and exciting—but it doesn’t have the bad smells, litter and pollution, and constant noise that I thought it would. Street cleaners are constantly at work throughout the city, sweeping up trash and keeping an eye out for vandalism. A local law prohibits noise violations after 11 pm, so I fall asleep at night as easily as I do back home. But I would be remiss to forget a major negative aspect of the city. Pick pocketing is rampant here. Luckily I’ve kept a close watch on my belongings in public places, but I can’t even recall the number of stories I’ve heard about attempted and successful robberies of wallets, iPhones and entire purses.

Trying to sort through my expectations for Barcelona, I realize that I didn’t necessarily base them on any preconceived notions of the city itself. My limited research on the city itself literally shows every morning when I open my wardrobe and stare blankly at my clothing options. I packed for my summer abroad with the ignorant mindset that because Spain and Indiana were about the same distance north of the equator, the temperatures in the two cities would be comparable. I didn’t take into account the effects of the Mediterranean on the weather or the cultural attitude toward the seasons, because I didn’t even think to look into factors such as these. Barcelona hasn’t yet left winter, not entirely, so I’m the fool wearing open-toed sandals on the metro while the local women are still wearing pantyhose under their boots.

As this example shows, my expectations were based on a worldview rooted in surveys and approximations. My formal education in the humanities has conditioned me to comb through academic texts with a careful and cautious eye. I feel a pang of disappointment, then, that I failed to realize that performing this type of analysis before I set off across the Atlantic would have prevented my minor frustration during my first week abroad.

Learning about and evaluating the subtleties of cultural norms in Barcelona while I was still in Indiana would have resulted in material decisions. I do not want to leave the impression that I would have chosen a different city, because I absolutely would not have. At most, I might have packed differently or Googled common Catalan phrases—the language is just as common as Spanish here, if not more. Doing these things would have only relieved me of superficial stress, which sounds like something that I should just deal with (it is and I am). But after my monumental first week, I’ve identified a lingering suspicion in the back of my head. Being lifted of any material, preventable stress would better equip me to deal with the things that no amount of research would prepare me for.

So my advice to anyone that is in the preparatory stages of going abroad is to research your city before you depart. Chances are that you’ll be like me and fall in love with the city no matter how much or how little you’d looked into the cultural norms beforehand. But I do know that with a few better preparations, I’d be able to enjoy the city that much more.

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