Studying Abroad in Spain

If you’re a certain type of person, Spain gets its hooks in you. Just look at George Orwell, Ernest Hemmingway, Washington Irving, and me. I’m not sure what type of person Spain targets, but based on that list I’m hoping it’s famous and about-to-be-famous writers. There are other countries with fantastic coasts, amazing food, and a rich, rich history. But there’s something about Spain that can bring tears to your eyes when the smallest memory bubbles to the surface. A large number of those memories for me are food related. Some of them are from visiting the country as a child, and some are from more recent experiences.   

I was fortunate to visit quite a bit as a child, and this was without a doubt where my love affair with Spain began, particularly the food. My dad went the summer after he turned 18 and loved it so much that he got a Masters in medieval Spanish literature. I don’t remember a lot of it from when I was younger, but my parents love to tell this story about getting lunch at a chiringuito, which is basically a beach-side restaurant, and how I ate this huge bowl of clams. After I’d finished, two guys came over from another table to say they’d bet on whether or not I would finish it. I feel bad for whoever bet against me; I crushed those clams.

Years later in college, major undeclared and approaching a worrying high number of semester units, I lamented to my dad that I wished I could go back and major in Spanish. He said why don’t I just major in it. So I did. After getting myself one unit away from graduation, I went abroad for my final year of college. I’m proud to say I made sure that last unit was an elective, meaning any Spanish-language class would fulfill it. As a result, I got to study all sorts of fascinating things, like American History.

My life outside class was amazing. I got to eat at some of my favorite restaurants, like Posada de la Villa, and indulge in all the things that Spain does so well, seafood, bread, fresh vegetables, and pork in almost all forms, for an entire year.

Although studying abroad was an incredible experience, I would’ve preferred not to learn what it felt like to have an insatiable craving for deep dish pizza or and a big, juicy hamburger while knowing the nearest one is literally an ocean away. And that’s the closest it’ll be for the whole year! A few of my classmates ran into this issue as well. The solution some of them deployed was to return home multiple times during our first semester, flying all the way from Madrid to San Francisco. That’s 8 or 9 hours each way. Even though it was possible to schedule all your classes Mon/Tues or Thurs/Fri so you’d have the time off, over 16 hours of travel in less than a week , that’s a long way to go for a hamburger.

I just tried to find the food I was craving locally. I couldn’t find deep dish pizza in Spain, and their hamburgers didn’t hold a candle to an American burger joint. Madrid did have a few American-style burger restaurants, one modeled after a 50’s-style diner, milkshakes and all. The other had Bud Light on tap and was styled on a mobile home. They were closer to the real thing than your average cafeterÍa, but no match for an average American diner. Actually, that was the first time I had Bud Light. Up until that moment I’d thought Spanish beer was fairly light. Boy was I wrong. Spanish beer has a body like a Mr. Universe contestant compared to Bud Light.

I spent a lot of time looking for classic American foods like Oreos, graham crackers and root beer. Despite the internet having been around for 25 years at the point, what we consider modern search was… nascent. At best. Finding a store with American products was more about investigating rumors than searching for the right keywords. But when you found that shop, it was like ice water in the desert. I remember buying and rationing a six pack of Vanilla Coke, savoring each sugary, syrupy sip. Vanilla Coke! It’s not even that good!

Having a service like Comfort Eats would’ve really helped alleviate my cravings for American food. Spain has some great sweets. But they don’t have Oreos. They don’t have sea salt and vinegar chips. And they don’t have Girl Scout cookies. All of these have been my go-to snack over the years, especially in college.

A few other things hadn’t made it to Spain while I was there, like S’mores. I don’t recall being able to find marshmallows. And they definitely didn’t have graham crackers. The thing that really surprised me though, was they’d never heard of a soda float. I was greeted with much head scratching when I combined ice cream and Coca Cola. And, although they have bacon, they really don’t know how to cook it.

Eventually, BLT and potato chips, with half a Cruz Campo beer, became my go-to lunch in Spain. I’m not completely sure why, but I suspect it was something familiar that, in my context at the time, was uniquely American. It also combined Spain’s great produce, the American method of bacon preparation, and potato chips, which both Spain and the USA do well.

Oddly, Spain also does amazing Tex-Mex. I think I visited the Tex-Mex place below my apartment, El Rincón de Andy (Andy’s Corner), at least once a week. Don’t look for it though; they closed during one of the economic crisis and have been replaced by a much more polished-looking, and probably not as good, Tex-Mex place. They had the most amazing nachos, chicken/beef fajitas, and mocajete with queso ranchero. My friend and I spent a lot of time getting to know the owners, Andy and Karl. I remember one night we stayed up until about… four am drinking with them. The next day I went to Parque de Atracciones, an amusement park in Madrid. I look back on that experience now and wonder not only how I thought it was a good idea, but how I managed it at all.

Sadly, my year abroad eventually came to an end and I returned to the States, with only occasional bouts of reverse culture shock. Hearing everyone speak English was exceptionally strange for the first day or so. I remember hearing people speaking English and automatically thinking that they should learn some Spanish. The worst part though? That would have to be the insatiable craving for jamón ibérico and pimientos de padrón every few months.

Another weird thing that happened was I had a pretty steep decline in my ability to make the words good in English. It happened to the whole program. English has some pretty bizarre vowels, while in Spanish they are pretty regular. So nobody could spell anything in English after the first six months, and it took me years to be able to spell again. I actually still have an occasional Spanish moment to this day.

Anyone who has the opportunity to study abroad in Spain absolutely should. When else will you potentially have a five-day weekend, every weekend? Seriously though, it’s a great way to really achieve fluency in a language. It’s also a great opportunity for self-discovery. Being away from all the expectations of your everyday life gives you room to explore who you are in that moment, and maybe come back a little bit closer to the person you want to be.

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