November 12 2010
Diane Yates Reports on International Experience in Barcelona, Spain
The night I arrived in Barcelona, Spain won the World Cup. I arrived at my new apartment (piso) to drop off my bag and promptly go to one of many neighborhood bars with big screens airing the futball game before the city exploded. Thus was my introduction to the Spanish culture (or more specifically, Catalan culture), people were often in cafes, plazas, or parks rather than in their apartments.
As a second year MILR student, I chose to spend my summer living abroad. This was important to me for a couple of reasons: 1) I did not have international travel experience (with the exception of a 1 week trip to Europe for an ILR class) and 2) whether I was a practitioner sending people on international assignments or on one myself, I wanted the first-hand experience of living abroad. Although I was aware that the process of cross-cultural adjustment involves numerous stages involving culture shock and isolation, followed by an un-learning of one’s home-culture behavioral scripts in order to learn the host-culture’s, I had never myself experienced this process.
During the first part of my summer, I took courses in Paris, at ESCP. (This portion of my international experience was self-funded.) About 2-3 weeks into my stay, I felt somewhat isolated particularly because I don’t speak French but joined a local running group and was able to make new friends and become exposed to a variety of different cultural experiences.
After spending 6 weeks in Paris, I moved to Barcelona, where I would spend the next 5 weeks of my summer. By that point, I thought I was acclimated to ‘European’ living. Meaning, air conditioners and recycle bins aren’t common in residences, and water (even in restaurants) is not free. In fact, my apartment tours always included the phrase, “Americans use too much water…” followed by instructions of how to shower or wash dishes (don’t let water run while soaping up). I imagined it akin to “water conservation for dummies” with a mix of education and judgment. At first I tried to defend myself and explain that I was environmentally conscious, but the lecture continued. It was fascinating to experience, first-hand, people’s assumptions about and stereotypes of Americans.
I focused my time in Barcelona taking Spanish classes for 4 hours a day. While the local language was Catalan, the language school provided ample opportunity to practice outside of class with various activities in the evening such as film, dance, and music concerts. Barcelona seemed unaffected by the high unemployment rates (around 20%) in Spain. (A quarter of Spain’s GDP comes from Barcelona.) The Catalan region is proud of its history and language. Historically, it has tried to secede from Spain and this sentiment was present in the office where I interned. One colleague thought Spain should stay together and embrace its diversity and the other jokingly disagreed, “but we’re smarter and better looking!” An underlying component seemed to be the economic difference. Barcelona has had a better economy historically due to its ports.
Like the rest of Europe, Spain goes on holiday in July and August so finding an internship proved to be difficult, though I had offers for September. I found a position critiquing resumes for students at ESADE (the leading business school in Spain) who needed a native English speaker to verify English translation. The people were very friendly, which was consistent of my stay in Spain. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing of neighborhood festivals or places to visit and they enjoyed hearing about American cities and customs. The French influence in the culture was apparent. For example, a group of us stopped for lunch on our way to the mountains for a weekend trip. They raved about their local dessert called “crema catalana” which turned out to be identical to crème brulee! This was the same weekend that I learned how to make ‘tomato bread’. With delight, I squeezed the juice out of a tomato, drizzling it on my bread. With all my might, I fought the urge to eat the tomato afterward (“you just don’t”).
Other than that, daily life in Barcelona was simply beautiful. I enjoyed being a pedestrian and exploring the streets, parks, museums and beaches. The “in-group, out-group” experience was pronounced as my dark looks spared me the hassle given to tourists yet my accent identified me as tourist/foreigner, which typically translated into being offered products/services at higher prices.
All in all, I had a summer full of new experiences and learning. No amount of reading material could have conveyed the isolating effect of a language barrier or how meaningful the kindness from strangers can be when you are truly lost! I will forever be mindful of how important support systems are, especially for those on international assignments. Had I not immersed myself in the social networks that emanated from the running group in Paris, or those from my social groups and internship in Barcelona, it would have been far more difficult for me to receive the support and guidance that I needed to learn local norms, navigate the cities, and make the most of my stay in Europe.