Today, I’m 46 days into my fall semester, 63 days into living in Cádiz, Spain, and 78 days into study abroad.
Finally, I feel like I’ve moved into the in-the-swing-of-things stage. There are a couple reasons why it took me so long, but a lot of it has to do with the structure of my program. When we arrived in Spain, we first spent four days in Madrid, adjusting to a new time zone and schedule, meeting as a group to discuss advice and logistics, and sightseeing. Then, we came to Cádiz and began an intensive Spanish language course, which lasted three weeks. At the end of this class, after a huge test and a few days of break (during which I traveled to Barcelona with two friends from my program) our semester finally began. Basically, I spent a whole month studying abroad without actually having started the school year.
To some, this may sound ideal. Let’s be honest: going to class is usually not the new, exhilarating, adventurous part of study abroad that draws people to it. But for me, this waiting around was difficult. It felt like a weird limbo to me, and I was anxious to know what my daily life here would actually be like, during the actual semester, with my actual classes. I wanted to figure things out! To be more specific, what I really wanted was routine. I’m the type of person that craves routines, that thrives in them. And now, after shopping some classes (yes, there’s an add/drop period here too!), deciding on the four that I’ll take, introducing myself to all my professors, and finally beginning to figure out how being a college student here actually works, I’m happy to report that I’ve settled into my very own Cádiz daily routines. Well, sort of.
My morning routine begins in my small bedroom, when I open my blinds and get to look out at either 1. the big, gorgeous bay, its choppier parts almost white with the rising sun’s reflection or 2. a gigantic cruise ship. Our apartment building is directly in front of the port, which makes for an unpredictable mix of phenomenal window views and very mediocre ones. After getting up, getting dressed, and packing my backpack for the day, I usually spend two minutes or so just sitting in my room, half-procrastinating, half-preparing myself, because I know that as soon as I open my bedroom door, there will potentially be rapid-fire Spanish coming at me from all directions. After a personal mini pep-talk in which I remind myself that I CAN speak Spanish, even if it doesn’t always feel like it here, I open the door. Sometimes I get lucky and everyone has left the house already, so I can eat my breakfast (yogurt and fruit, always) in peace and give the Spanish part of my brain some time to wake itself up for the day. (I’ve found that it, annoyingly, takes a while.) If not, I just have to ask “¿Qué?” more than usual. I think my host family is used to it by now.
I’ve also established a nighttime routine. My night usually ends with me sitting on the couch doing homework or texting friends as my host mom or dad watches TV (I’ve seen everything from news broadcasts about the Cataluña independence referendum, to very intense and tear-filled game shows, to a fictionalized series based on the lives of the royal Spanish family). Eventually I head to my room down the hall and shut the door, after saying goodnight to anyone who’s still awake. I check tomorrow’s weather before setting my clothes out, and I’m STILL pleasantly surprised every night when I see that the next day will be another beautiful, sunny 75-80 degrees. There has been a grand total of two rainy exceptions to what has otherwise been nothing less than gorgeous forecasts every day. Then, right before going to bed, I write a bit in my journal. It’s not really a place for self-reflection, although I wish I was mature and eloquent enough to keep a journal like that. Rather, it’s just for me to look back through and remember everything that happened to me in Cádiz, even the little things (sometimes those are the best!). I’ve been using a system of three L’s: I write down what I Lived that day (i.e. a quick list of what happened), what I Learned, and what I Loved. It’s a short, easy thing to do every night, and I would definitely recommend it to people abroad, and maybe even to people at home too.
There are also other tiny things that have become habits of mine here, and I consider these a sort of routine as well. My lunchtime routine, for example: walking into the kitchen when I’m called, sitting at my designated seat at the table, reminding myself to eat more slowly so that I don’t awkwardly finish before everyone, reminding myself to keep my hands on the table, rather than underneath, to follow Spanish table manners, reminding myself of different Spanish compliments for food so that I don’t repeat the same “¡Qué rico!” at every meal, et cetera. Or my routine at the start of class: I find a seat near the front of the room so that I can hear and understand the professor more clearly, I sit down and try to look extremely busy as I take my school supplies out of my backpack, and then I eavesdrop. If the groups of students around me are clearly Spaniards, I continue to pretend to be busy with my backpack, as I still haven’t worked up the courage to say more than a few words to them. If I can hear that they’re foreign as well, I usually try to turn to them and say hello. Luckily, all my classes have a fair amount of international students like myself. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who can’t catch every word the professor says.
I like routines because they’re predictable. I put them in place so that I can know what’s going to happen, so that I’m not caught off-guard. But what I’ve learned to accept here is that routine and discomfort can coexist. In fact, discomfort exists within almost all of my routines here in Cádiz. At this point, I can predict that there will come a point in every single day of this semester in which I am uncomfortable: maybe I’m lost in class, or I can’t understand a question that someone asks me, or I miss home, or I don’t have enough free time, or I have too much free time…there are lots of options. But knowing that I will regularly experience confusion and awkwardness and helplessness is, in and of itself, a comforting truth. This ability to feel “comfortable in discomfort,” as a high school trainer of mine called it, is something I’m working on here every single day.