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the culture capital of Europe changed the meaning of life for a student living in the margin of American university

the place that changed it all.

I must clarify the anticipation and mental preparation I had leading up to this trip before I begin this trip of nostalgia and familiar story of "the American kid studies abroad and discovers a new worldview,". My readiness was similar to that of a grad student in international affairs, who's on their way to sit in on diplomatic conferences. As a foreign language enthusiast who's been studying Spanish since elementary school, my reggaetone playlist was quickly Spotified, strictly Spanish language Netflix movies, daily Duolingo, European styled outfits prepared - all of my effort had culminated up to this point so I had to up the intensity.

I hit the ground running once I arrived in Bilbao. I struck up conversation with a couple who were waiting in the dimunitive Aireportua - I told them about where I was from, my endeavors, and other routinely spoken personal details familiar to language learners who have limited breadth of conversation. I quickly learned that if I wanted to sound like a native, I had to start taking risks as soon as possible at the risk of sounding as dumb as possible.



puente san anton, bilbao, españa



If it were feasible for a person with non-superhuman language processing ability to become fluent in a language in six weeks, I would have done it. My primary goal was to learn as much Spanish as possible in a month and a half. I ditched many of the planned activities to go meet locals. The program activities were mostly anglicized, and I quickly learned that my majority White American student group were less heavy on Spanish fluency and more reluctant to go out without our assigned tour guide/translator - a local grad student at Universidad de Navarra. Not only was I the awestruck, not-quite-assimilated token Black kid, I was initially the only student really interested in getting my feet wet language and culture-wise. Granted I'm a language nerd who is big on lingo and dialects - it's still easy to feel like a polyglot when your peers' in the background sound like they're speaking English until you pay close enough attention to hear that they're using Spanish words. I couldn't blame them for the American way of mononlingualism that most of us conform to, but I sometimes avoided them to not appear even more American than I already did.

Interactions with the natives improved fairly quickly. I made friends with a bartender at the hotel we were staying in. If anyone made traveling 4,000 miles worthwhile, it was Maria. She had the fun personality of a great Camarero, and was the perfect conversation partner: I aided her English and she would naturally fire away in Castellano. I appreciated her patience because it is a major factor when dealing with natives. A person on the street who know's some English may quickly deny a poor attempt at their language, and revert to their best English. I understood though, since time is valuable, and Spanish has relatively low information density so it often seems to be spoken a lot faster than English. Maria allowed me to be comfortable in my mistakes, and just speak fearlessly. A beer here and there was icing on the cake, erasing any nervousness or tension that would stagnate the risks I took in conversation. Another source of conversations were with students at Navarra. The first of two classes I took was based around engineering across cultures. Less technical, and more about the sociology of innovating for foreign places, it allowed time to make friends with our Spanish counterparts, whom were integrated into the class with us Americans. It was refreshing to meet peers who showed excitement in stepping out of their comfort zone and making new acquaintances - a change in atmosphere from the cold, standoffish feel that Michigan can sometimes emanate (especially in the Winter), where students' social circles often consist of uncannily similar lives/backgrounds. Donostia was an escape from the competition of scions and what felt like academic stress tests. On the other hand, the sight of youths reeking of American-ness strolling through the cool streets of northern Spain was not unentertaining.

Olarain's soft, pale gray painted walls, and clean, light-wood finish had the luxury touch of a hotel and the welcoming feel of a college dorm. Free-spirited child-like paintings on the building's exterior and a small soccer field on the roof were what really made it feel like it was a second home for students in primary and secondary school. The entrance to the soccer field was a medium sized area with a basketball rim and a hard, smooth, slightly crooked concrete ground that could have been in a skatepark somewhere. Another reminder that I was in Europe, as you couldn't find this anywhere else in the States. I wouldn't have traded Olarain for any other hotel-dorm in the world. Every day from start to finish was an opportunity to slip into a blissful adventure in a dream I'd been waiting to live for years. It was so much easier to be in-the-moment because I was discovering the regular things I'd seen before in a new lens, and things and people I'd never seen before in an even newer lens that would refresh itself during any kind of interaction I had with a native. I probably talked to more strangers than I should ever think about mentioning in an elementary school. It wasn't long after arrival that I knew I was in the right place. The vacation feeling that anyone gets in a foreign land is magnified when you have a passion for learning how people connect and interact with one another - especially via language. From living near Baltimore, to D.C., to Detroit, picking up on slang and language was second nature. Especially at home in D.C. where a new word is coined biweekly, and after a couple of sentences of context you know what it means without explicitly asking. Majoring in computer science major icing on the cake as every other class comes with learning a new language or framework. Programming language and spoken language go hand-in-hand for me as a continous learning curve. As long as I didn't sound like a native in Castellano, there was more to discover, and once I achieved fluency, I could roam about and build relationships as if I was in the States or any English-speaking country. A whole new level of possibility would be unlocked.

colegio mayor olarain