Women wearing Sevillana dresses dance during La Feria de Abril in the Andalusian capital of Seville, Spain. (Marcelo del Pozo /REUTERS)
Things don’t start to feel real until you drag your two empty suitcases into your bedroom and start to pack for your semester abroad. That’s when you realize your life for the next six months will have to weigh less than you do, in fact less than a small child.
There was a morning in late May, just a couple of weeks before I would have to re-pack those suitcases, when the heat of Seville woke me up earlier than usual. Even with the window wide open, as soon as the sun rises there’s no escaping the heat of this ancient Spanish port city. I sat up in bed listening to the sounds of the apartment building waking up, shades rattling open and mothers moving in kitchens. I thought about leaving this city, whether I was ready. Though it was hard to sleep with the noise from the neighbors and the street below, I was grateful for this, to wake up organically with the beginnings of other people’s days.
My six months in Spain were the most exciting, frightening, enlightening months of my life. I learned so much about another culture: what other people value, what makes them get out of bed, what makes them stay up so late. I learned what it’s like to live with a family I’m not related to, and how to explore a country with strangers who would become close friends. I learned how to read a city with my feet, walking through streets so narrow that the sidewalks, where they existed, were no wider than a foot.
There are terrifying moments, like when you walk into your apartment to find the place burglarized. But there are also the magical ones, like discovering, at 3 a.m., a tiny flamenco bar filled with both neighborhood regulars and those passing through. Where the guitarist plays your favorite song and the man as large as a tuba suddenly begins to sing in a stunning and melancholic voice. Being asked to dance.
There’s a poem by Gail Mazur called “Why You Travel” that encapsulates why you should study abroad if you have the opportunity. The photographs of you traveling, wherever you are in the world, show you “having the time of your life, blistered and smiling. The acid of your fear could eat the world.”
That’s exactly it. To confront that fear. To face the newness and difference of everything and everyone. To feel yourself changing while still holding on to who you are.
As someone who’s introverted, I feel drained talking to people for a long time, and I knew my semester abroad would be a challenge. But I also knew my experience would be defined by my interactions with other people. If I didn’t push myself to say yes to every invitation, if I didn’t small-talk with the fruit vendors or the tapas bartenders, if I didn’t ask to share notes with the Spanish students in my university classes, I would miss out on important opportunities to immerse in the culture. Living in a foreign city is supposed to push you outside your comfort zone.
Everything about spending a semester abroad is a learning experience. I learned a lot about Seville by the way people talk: their accent, their intonations, the sheer speed with which they spoke. My host brother joked that Andalusian Spanish is the most advanced form of the language because it’s so economical. People eat their consonants. The phrase meaning “I talked or have talked” — “he hablado”— becomes “he hablao.” Combine that with their phonetic velocity, and it’s no understatement to say that if you can understand the Spanish spoken in the south of Spain, then you can understand Spanish spoken anywhere. More than improving my ability to speak Spanish, I improved my ability to understand the nuances of what people said.
Compared with places like the Middle East or Asia, Seville wasn’t too much of a culture shock. I was still in the Western world. The culture shocks I experienced came in the daily routines, the little details.
The food, for instance. All the fruits and vegetables are so fresh since the Spanish aren’t dependent on preservatives. Meals are heavy on meat, though, especially ham, their pride and joy. Lunch is the most important and biggest meal of the day, and people’s schedules seem engineered around it. We always waited for my host dad to come home from work, usually at 3:30 in the afternoon, and we wouldn’t eat again until about 10:30 p.m.
What I loved most about Spain’s gastronomy is how traditional and local each dish is. In Seville, people are proud of where they come from; they are born, live and die here. The food they eat reflects their municipal pride.
There is a phrase in Seville that “life is lived on the streets,” and there’s no better way to describe the city. Seville has a culture of extroversion; people are always going out with friends or grabbing a beer between classes or after work. If you walk around at midnight on the weekend, the people you’ll see at bars are parents, grandparents and young children. Anyone who is still at home is simply getting ready to go out — and to stay out until the sun rises. Yes, there’s a huge economic crisis: The youth unemployment rate, especially in Andalusia, exceeds 60 percent. Yet people are still going out. They would rather live with less than sacrifice going out with their friends and family.
This emphasis on going out also reflects the importance people place on relationships. Families are very close, and not just because multiple generations often live under the same roof. In the States, especially in a city like Washington, I feel as though I live in a work-centered culture where something as simple as getting coffee with a friend is a luxury of time I can’t afford. Not so in Spain. The de facto motto in Seville is “no pasa nada,” meaning it doesn’t matter, it’s fine, everything will work itself out.
The phrase also applies to the university system, where there is no homework, attendance is never recorded, and the typical student only really works in the last two weeks of the semester for his one and only grade in the final exam. Although it sometimes did feel as though no one my age ever worked hard, it was wonderful living in a culture where friends and family always come before work.
The author at Priory Church in Aracena. (Courtesy Adrianna Smith)
Everybody’s study abroad experience is intensely personal. In asking to go to Spain, I was asking to go away from my home, from everything I identified with. Yet, for me, being in Spain was one of the deepest ways I was able to understand myself. My mom and her family are from Buenos Aires but with ancestors from Spain. So, in many ways, living in Seville was a way to see what life I might have had if my mom’s ancestors had never left the village of Andoain 500 years ago. Much about my host family’s apartment, especially their kitchen, reminded me of my grandparents’ house.
When my family came to visit, we met in San Sebastian in the north of Spain. Thirty minutes outside this city is where my grandfather’s ancestors had left their comfortable house in the heart of the Basque country to move thousands of miles away to Argentina. Amazingly, the house that the Alurralde family had lived in was still standing up until the late 1990s. An athletic center has been built in its place, yet it still bears our family name.
When I think of Seville, yes, I think about the late schedules and the churros with chocolate; my host family and Spanish friends; and the major week-long holidays of Holy Week (Semana Santa); and the flamenco festival (La Feria).
But what I really remember are the marathon flamenco classes I took with my friends at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays; how we would celebrate afterward with our scoops of quemesabe at the best heladeria in the city.
I think of the silence of the tens and tens of thousands lining the streets during Semana Santa, waiting for the floats with la Virgen and for the rain of rose petals and serenades people would give her from the rooftops.
I think of the intensity of the futbol games, which you knew the entire city was watching by the perfectly synchronized cheers erupting from the apartments and streets around you.
This essay may read as my love letter to Seville, but what I really hope to convey is how important it is to live in a foreign city. What makes study abroad amazing is how much you learn about life in such a condensed period, away from everything familiar.
So to those of you debating whether to leave the comforts of the life you’ve built for yourself at your university, my unconditional answer is: Go.
Adrianna Smith is a student at Georgetown University and a native Washingtonian from Chevy Chase.
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Jetting off to live and work abroad can seem like a daunting prospect for a new graduate. If you have already found a job at home, you are likely to be warned that giving it up could be a big mistake - and that you could miss out on promotion opportunities. However, there are also exciting gains to be made by taking the plunge. Moving to another country can offer plenty of opportunities to boost your career, by building new skills and international links which will pay dividends in the future.
Travelling will also develop your self-reliance and adaptability, and your foreign work experience will look great on your CV. Another point to bear in mind is that it is much easier to make the break and travel abroad early in your career than it will be later on when you are likely to be tied down by family commitments.
Young people from many countries are becoming increasingly mobile in our global economy. Around 10,000 people from Britain, many of whom have recently left university, are currently emigrating to New Zealand alone every year. Meanwhile, a recent survey of new graduates from Sweden’s Linköping University found that more than 75% were prepared to consider seeking jobs abroad.
At present, many graduates are deciding to work abroad for a time because the job market is difficult in their own country. This means that seeking work elsewhere seems a good option rather than being unemployed, or having to take a job which may be of little help to their career prospects in the longer term, like bar work or stacking shelves.
It is important to be aware that job markets have been hit by the economic downturn in many different countries, and so there is no guarantee that moving abroad will mean you can immediately find well-paid work. However, many expats do say money is an incentive and that they find they have a better standard of living abroad than they would in their home country. A survey by a British bank found that more than 80% of UK nationals living in Spain said the cost of living was lower there than at home, while a similar number claimed the quality of life was higher.
When moving abroad, one skill you already have is your mother tongue. There can often be opportunities to get work in language schools – which will be a valuable experience if you later decide to go into teaching in your home country. English teachers are especially in demand, with job opportunities ranging from private language schools in Turkey to summer camps in Finland. If you have this type of work in mind, it is a good idea to do at least a short course leading to a qualification in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) before setting off.
As well as teaching your own language, living and working abroad gives the best possible opportunity to become fluent in another tongue. You can only really become an expert in a language by speaking it constantly, and living in a different country gives a great opportunity to do just this, immersing yourself in another culture.
Work Programmes and Volunteering
If you want to enlarge your skills by working abroad, there are many programmes for students and young people, including volunteer projects. Work like this gives the opportunity to help a good cause at the same time as gaining valuable experience. The best-known schemes include those run by international development organisations like Voluntary Service Overseas and Raleigh International, but there are also many smaller specialist agencies geared to particular countries.
Taking out suitable travel insurance is vital for anybody who is going to spend time abroad, whether on holiday, studying or working, and it is important to get unbiased advice on this. Fortunately, by visiting a specialist website, you can compare the cover which is available from more than 35 insurance providers in order to find the best deal for you. It is possible to do this by filling in a single form, saving a great deal of time and trouble. Another important preparation is to check whether you need visas and work permits in order to seek employment in a foreign country. It is essential to get full information well in advance - for a better overview, you can also look at our checklist of things to consider when moving abroad.
New graduates should not be afraid to try working abroad, because, even in the difficult economic climate of the 21st century, there are many opportunities. You could well find that spending some time living in another culture is the making of your career, helping you to build contacts which will stand you in good stead later and also boost your confidence, independence and language skills. Volunteer work could also provide the chance to try working in a different field and discover whether it is something you want to pursue further. Whether you later return home or even decide that you want to live abroad permanently, your experience will prove to be invaluable.
If you're considering moving abroad it's important that you understand how to tailor your job application to country-specific conditions.
If you already know where you want to go, you might find some valuable information in one of these articles: