Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Ruth Spills All: Spain Edition



A friend once told me that man plans and God laughs. This isn’t out of spite, but rather because He knows something better lies ahead, something that you could not have possibly fathomed. 

No truer words have ever been spoken.

I am so incredibly fortunate to be studying abroad for a full semester in Spain, visiting monuments older than the United States, distancing myself from the stress of Carolina, and finally living on the same continent as my extended family in England. However, I’ve refrained from writing about the experience because of the changes, both internal and external, that I’ve been processing. The insatiable perfectionist in me wanted this reflection to be flawless – but there’s no such thing as the perfect article or the perfect experience. With less than one month to go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to reflect on some of what has happened so far: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Admittedly, one of my fatal flaws is being a serial planner. My preparation process for this five-month trip was filled with anxiety, excitement, as well as in-depth investigating. I asked the few students of color who had traveled to Spain before me which region was best to go to, what to pack, what to expect, and ultimately, I chose Andalusia. While I could’ve gone to Madrid, a city I might have enjoyed more because of its metropolitan modernity, the primary purpose of studying abroad is to study, whether it’s through experiential or classroom learning. 

That being said, UNC in Sevilla is one of the few programs I saw that ensured that my courses would transfer properly and I would receive credit towards my general education classes and Hispanic Studies minor. The program also had a built-in homestay, which meant three free meals, guaranteed opportunities to practice your Spanish, and a safety net in the case of emergencies (i.e. your host family). After committing to the program, I went to a pre-departure conference with 25 or so other students who were also headed to Spain, where previous travelers told us all about their adventures abroad. A student mentioned that no matter how prepared you think you are, you literally cannot brace yourself for the physiological changes you will undergo when you arrive. I scoffed.

But she was right.

Upon my arrival in Spain, I tried to purchase a new SIM card. After fumbling through my conversation with the sales associate, I managed to get one, but iMessage wasn’t syncing properly. I couldn’t message my friends who had Androids and couldn’t call anyone back home, only via FaceTime or FaceTime Audio. When I did text my friends with iPhones, my “number” came up as our family iTunes email address. Nothing has changed since then, but luckily, several other students were experiencing this so I knew it wasn’t just me. 

After marching down to the Vodafone shop some days later and making an unsuccessful trip to a secondhand Apple store for assistance, I was fed up and decided to get drinks with a few friends to decompress. 

No pasa nada. It’s whatever, you know? People can reach me through social media, email, and WhatsApp. I’ll be fine,” I lied to myself, in a weak attempt to brush off my worries. 

Type A Ruth did not plan for this, but there was literally nothing I could do to fix it. I was forced to “look on the bright side”, a reductive little saying I typically roll my eyes at. Despite constantly inhaling secondhand smoke, I’m alive, I can communicate with my family through WhatsApp, and I’m drinking in Spain. That's enough to be thankful for.

I’m not just in Spain though. I am a Black woman from the United States in Spain. How I navigate this world and how I maintain my safety as a Black woman is of utmost importance to me. There’s a unique interplay between the privilege I have as an American citizen abroad yet the global anti-Blackness I still witness and experience. Thankfully, I don’t feel the impending threat of being gunned down by police, but at times, I wonder who's around me that I can depend on and will tacitly understand my struggles, my needs, etc. My friend Aitza, a UNC alumna who is now teaching English in northwest Spain, added me to Facebook groups for Black people living here – Ghanaian, African American, Jamaican, British Nigerian, you name it – in order to help foster a sense of community. My program director, a Black woman, was even able to give me braider recommendations when I asked.

Yet in a week, I might see only five people who look like me: African men selling counterfeit designer bags on the streets, offering packets of tissues at roundabouts, or helping people park their cars. And that’s it. This wasn’t surprising at all, as I had done my research before coming and thought I knew a little bit about the racism here and Spain’s small Black population. What I did not know is that I’d receive stares from locals daily, that I’d see costumes at Carnaval so horrible that my stomach would turn, or that I’d have to argue with my professors weekly over colonization apologetics and why blackface is objectively racist no matter the country. 

But alas, I’ve been able to turn this into a bit of a game, staring back at older white Spaniards who stare at me or simply provoking my problematic teachers every now and again for a good laugh. Occasionally, I feel like I’m back in high school, which is somewhat unsettling. I attend classes in the same building, rotating from room to room with other American students – minus the overtly, aggressively racist classmates I encountered when I was 14 to 17 years old. 

In my free time, I’m volunteering at Sevilla Acoge, an organization dedicated to helping refugee and immigrant families integrate themselves into Sevillan society without erasing their cultural identity. I work with six to eight-year-old children twice a week serving as a teacher’s assistant, and it has been a joy to be with these kids and watch them progress each day. The way they struggle yet shamelessly ask for help has taught me so much about myself and my resistance to doing just that. My heart soared when I met one of my students’ parents, a Nigerian woman who spoke English. Every Tuesday and Thursday when she comes to pick up her children, we start chatting away about jollof rice, shaku shaku, and the prospect of taking her kids back home. 

Naturally, my respect for immigrants is remarkably high, but since my time here, it has only skyrocketed. My parents are Nigerian immigrants who left their homeland to provide a better future for me, my brother, and my late sister. While they were well-educated and knew English, the fact that they took such a leap of faith – sacrificing everything, traveling to a country where they knew no one, unsure about whether they would one day return to Nigeria  means so much more to me after my time in Spain. I can barely handle spending 5 months in a foreign country eating an unfamiliar cuisine and speaking a language that's not my native tongue, but that has been my parents’ reality for years now. 

Although my Spanish has certainly improved and I am more confident in my speaking and listening abilities, I don’t know if I would consider myself fluent just yet. When I initially came to Spain with my knowledge as extensive as SPAN 260 (and a having taken a whole semester off from speaking), I felt this looming need to depend on everyone around me, not only for safety reasons but in order to complete basic tasks. Being the introvert I am, I arguably value my autonomy and independence above all else. 

Within my first week of staying in Spain, I rode the tram to the city center, Plaza Nueva, put in my headphones, and walked around by myself with Google Maps as my personal tour guide. I couldn’t handle the feeling of being trapped. I live in a room half the size of my dorm shared by me and another UNC student, and I take showers in a space the size of 4-8 concrete tiles on the floor. Not to mention the fact that if it’s too early in the morning (ex. I have an international flight at 9 or 10 AM and need to shower at 6 AM), I have to manually increase the temperature of the generator, wait for a few minutes, then toggle with the tap to finally produce hot water. At one point, my well-meaning host mother suggested I shower at the gym because I was taking too long. I nodded my head, but was internally seething with rage. My showers, the most relaxing parts of my day, were now being policed. 

It was suffocating to report home for every single unseasoned meal, with no choice but to eat it. The first day I arrived, I was reeled in with chicken curry and rice, only to later be disappointed with cauliflower, cream of zucchini, and bechamel. Our Ukrainian housekeeper comes every other day, and her meals are hearty and flavorful. However, when she's not there, it's an extreme hit or miss for me. While my roommate loves our host mother's cooking, my African taste buds find it bland. It's a stark contrast to the culture I had grown up in where if you can't stomach spicy food, you might as well starve. The very McDonald’s that Americans chastise for its unhealthiness became a safe space for me. I, the child who generally hates cooking, even asked if I could cook my own food –  to which my host mother replied casually with, “No no, comes lo que comemos.” 

Eventually, I took solo trips to visit family in London, friends studying abroad in other parts of Europe, or around Spain by myself. These trips helped me stay a bit grounded and  physically remove myself from the situation. I knew I came here for three reasons: to take a break from Carolina, to improve my Spanish skills, and to continue my academics. That’s all I asked for and I’m getting it, so why am I so pressed? 

The oversimplified answer is because it’s just not the way I thought it would be.

My complaints are valid, yes, but aren’t my expectations? I wasn’t expecting siesta to become a source of both extreme love and hate nor was I expecting to have such difficulty finding basic things (lint roller, hand sanitizer, a water bottle, etc.), but leaning into the discomfort is good, they say. 

After the numerous situations that I’ve managed to wriggle my way through (ex. scrambling to print out documents at the nearest copistería before close, navigating the Paris metro system, or when my phone stopped working and I was almost stranded in London, etc.), I feel much more certain of myself and my abilities. While she’s still hyper-conscientious and a little hardheaded, the girl that was once scared of everything can now say she's visited 7 countries outside the U.S. That girl is me. From attending London Fashion Week to visiting the Louvre in France and booking a weekend getaway to Portugal, I’m realizing that so much lies within me. 

I can’t say that I loved every second of this, that I would ever do this again, or even return to Spain, but I am finishing this race. And I’m better for running it.