A Spanish Semester: Rebecca in Madrid

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

Outside the walls of Toledo, Spain

by Rebecca Filak

¡Hola! My name is Rebecca Filak, and I am a sophomore studying Mechanical Engineering at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in Spain. With only two months left in Europe, I have found that the title quote of this blog has been the anthem of my semester abroad. Two and a half months ago, I anxiously called a taxi in a language that was not my first language to take me from a foreign airport to an apartment in the heart of Madrid where my host mother supposedly lived even though I had never talked to her before the moment I knocked on her apartment door at 10 o’clock at night. Now, I ride the metro and the trains daily without glancing at the map, give tours of the city center of Madrid to my visitors without using Google maps or my Rick Steves book, and have no difficulty conversing with the local waiters or post office clerks in Spanish (which is actually Castilian). Traveling to Spain on my own was definitely a leap out of my comfort zone, but I have never been more grateful for such a change in my life. I have learned so much about other world cultures, seen so many beautiful man-made and natural sights, experienced so many unique activities, and grown so much as an individual in the past two and a half months.

Plaza de Espana in Sevilla, Spain

Smoothie in Parque de la Ciutadella in Barcelona, Spain

Outside the fortress in Granada, Spain

You never truly understand another culture until you experience it. There’s a big difference between reading that Spaniards don’t eat dinner until 9:00/10:00 PM and finding yourself standing outside of a restaurant that doesn’t open until 8:00 PM for dinner at 5:00 PM (because that’s when you’re used to Harwood dinner). Despite the timings of the meals, I have fallen in love with Spain’s culture. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. An extremely typical Spanish lunch is paella (rice with an assortment of meats or seafood), baked bread, and fresh fruit. Dinner is usually replaced by a meal of tapas (small appetizers to share with friends of an immense variety including, tortilla de patatas, croquettes, fried calamari, and mini-sandwiches). In addition to the change in meal times, I’ve adjusted to the Spanish norms of nightlife. In Madrid, everyone goes out not only on Fridays and Saturdays, but also Wednesdays and Thursdays because of the free entrance to the major clubs. On these nights, you won’t find anybody leaving their homes before 10:30 PM to get started with their nights of festivities. The peak of Madrid nightlife is around 1:30 AM and the “night” ends around 5:00/6:00 AM (depending on if you want to walk home or wait for the metro to open back up at 6:00). Side note: Despite the late nights, classes still start at 9:00 AM. However, there are no classes during the afternoon siesta from 1:00-3:00 PM. Although I love the food and the nightlife of Madrid, I will admit my biggest frustration with Spanish culture is that as I sit here in the middle of my campus in the beautiful sunlight of a 70 degree day without a cloud in sight, not a single student is wearing shorts. I’ve gotten used to the fact that wearing sweats and t-shirts to class is not socially acceptable, but as the days get warmer and warmer, I might have to break the social norms of not wearing shorts for the sake of avoiding heat stroke.

Cathedral in Segovia, Spain

Inside of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Alhambra of Granada, Spain

Beyond Madrid, I’ve found a world of cultures to explore. Beginning just within Spain, each region differs from the others similar to the different regions of the United States. Even more, each city seems to highlight a different part of the history of Spain with its own particular sights and experiences:

  • Granada (south of Spain): maintains its Moorish influence evident in the Alhambra
  • Sevilla (south of Spain): known for its professional Spanish Flamenco performances
  • Bilbao and San Sebastian (north of Spain): popular for their expensive and more modern beaches
  • Barcelona (east of Spain): one of the few areas where bullfighting is banned
  • Madrid (center of Spain): where bullfighting is not only legal, but also protected by law
  • Madrid’s outskirts (Toledo, Segovia, El Escorial, etc.): known for their preservation of the history of Spain

Therefore, my friends and I travel to each city to experience the different flavors of Spain and see each city’s cathedral, 500 smaller churches, palace, military fortress, Plaza de Espana, and 600 statues of famous Spaniards because no Spanish city is complete without those essential features.

Overlooking “The Blue City” of Chechaouen, Morocco

Nyhavn in Copenagen, Denmark

Inside “The Blue City” of Chechaouen, Morocco

Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal

As much as I love Spain, there’s so much more to explore in Europe! Sadly, I can’t necessarily say that I’m filling up my passport with stamps (thanks to the EU’s lack of a requirement to stamp your passport when traveling inside of the EU).

Casa de Campo in Madrid, Spain

Nonetheless, 50% of my weekends are dedicated to exploring new countries and experiencing their cultures.  By taking advantage of the ability to plan my own weekend excursions, I’ve had the opportunity to ride a camel on the beach of Africa, climb 400 steps to the top of the outdoor spiral of the Church of Our Savior in Copenhagen, explore the self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood of Christiania, and feel the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

Temple of Debod in Madrid, Spain

Beyond the activities, each weekend trip comes with a greater appreciation for the lifestyles of the different parts of the world. Simply just meeting and connecting with people in these different countries is the most interesting part of traveling.

Hands down, studying abroad has been one of the best decisions of my life. Leaving the comfort of my “home” in Ames and “home-home” in Rockford has allowed me to learn so much about myself. I considered writing about a typical day in my life abroad, but that simply doesn’t exist. Every day is a new adventure, and I’m always learning something new about Madrid, Spain, or Europe as a whole. I’ve realized that the worst part about studying abroad and traveling is the desire you get to never stop. Especially, when I have to return to the real life of working 40 hours a week in two months. But until June 3rd, I’ll just keep traveling across Europe and finding all of Madrid’s secret treasures! ¡Hasta luego!

Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain


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