De Perdidos, Al Río

by Calum O’Donnell, 4th year student in LINCS

Going to Heriot-Watt University was one of the better decisions I’ve made with regards to my academic career. Perhaps the best decision, however, was choosing Interpretation and Translation, a subject that presented the opportunity to experience life abroad.

In August 2013 I embarked on a journey that would take me to the Spanish capital city of Madrid. I was to spend five months there as an undergraduate exchange student on the Erasmus programme, and it would end up being some of the greatest months of my life. Be it cheering on Cristiano Ronaldo in the world famous Santiago Bernabéu, bustling my way down the Gran Via or the rumbling chaos of the metro system, Madrid was a vibrant city that you can’t help but love. Not to mention, the city of Madrid was so excited about my arrival, they preemptively called a Metro station after me in my honour, ‘Metro O’Donnell’.

My first impressions were the same as every young, naïve student on their year abroad. Excited to be there, but intimidated by the prospect that I had to do everything myself. I’d scoured the internet for weeks before my departure, looking up tips, hints and must-do’s for when I arrived, but nothing can prepare you for stepping off the plane and realising that you’re quite literally thousands of miles outside your comfort zone. ­

I remember my first few days in the city; hurtling by in a blur of broken, nervously spoken Spanish, an astounding ability to seemingly spend money as if it was going out of fashion and an even better ability to find myself lost and sweaty in amongst the locals, even though whatever map I was reading was telling me, quite clearly, that I was in the right place.

Some of the biggest learning curves happened for me during my first month of living abroad. Things that seemed so difficult at the time such as; getting myself a sim card, viewing flats, organising my University enrolment or even ordering at restaurants and shops, are now things that happen naturally when I’m in Spain. I remember vividly stumbling through my personal details and my need for a sim card at the Orange phone shop during one of my first weeks in the country. The rookie mistake of rehearsing conversations in my head before they happened hindered me at the start of my trip, it was difficult for me to just let go and trust my ability to listen and understand in Spanish, even if during the first weeks I had no idea what was being said to me.

Organising myself and being sensible about getting the most out of my year abroad experience was pretty important to me, and this meant meeting as many people as I could and trying to have as much fun with learning the Spanish language and culture as I could.

So before leaving for Spain I’d made a short list of things to do, detailing my need to:

  1. Find a flat.
  2. Enrol in University.
  3. Improve my Spanish.

The first item ticked off of this list, rather unsurprisingly, was Find a flat. I’d met up for some viewings with an older gentleman by the name of Arturo, who said he had a perfect flat for what I was looking for. Situated in the infamous Arguelles, near the heart of the city, with two English boys and a Venezuelan lad who could speak less English than I could Spanish. The flat was on Calle Andres Mellado, and it was as good as home. Later in my stay, the flat would affectionately be referred to as ‘El Palacio’, which, rather obviously, translates as the Palace, but it never seemed to catch on with the locals or my friends… Funny that.

Getting a well-situated flat with three good guys was the best thing I could have done for myself. It meant that missing a metro or coming home when the sun was rising presented little problem. We were a 15-minute walk from the Gran Via (which made life very easy), a 54-second walk to the door of the Metro station (yes, I counted it) and a 10-minute walk from our local gym (which we never used), the Palace was the perfect place for me. Life was good. I’d managed to cross off the first item on my list and I’d barely been there a week. I was good at this Year Abroad stuff.

Enrolling at my chosen Spanish institution however, the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, was something that had to be seen to be believed. A myriad of emails and notices (all in Spanish…of course) were sent to my student account about enrolling on a Tuesday at an obscure building on the University’s campus at Cantoblanco, about 30-minutes north of Madrid. I headed up and tried my best to navigate my way through the sea of bodies chittering Spanish slang and the confusing signage that seemed to dominate the campus, but failed to find the room. I’d asked for directions several times, but the flurry of Spanish that was aimed my way was unintelligible to me at the time. I was slowly discovering that ‘pánico ciego’ was an adequate way to describe my mental state and perhaps my facial expression when attempting to understand the rapid fire of words that the Spaniards said to me, ‘pánico ciego’ in English, by the way, means blind panic.

However, once enrolled (tick no.2 off of that list!) and attending classes, life became considerably easier. The lecturers in each of my classes spoke clearly, concisely and I found myself grinning ear to ear when I understood complex phrases or laughing along with the class. Soon, conversations with other Spaniards become natural and I even started to hum along to Spanish songs when out and about…the same ones I air-guitar’d to back at the Palace. There were several classes I looked forward to each week, ranging from Lenguas en Contextos (Languages in Context) and Literaturas Europeas (European Literature), the one that I liked the most was Traducción General (General Translation). There was a great atmosphere in the class and everyone loved the fact that there were two native English speakers to keep them all right, even if they were from Fife and Glasgow, respectively. The work ethic that I encountered in each of the classes was pretty incredible. Every class had a studious attitude and they focussed a lot on the work they did outside of class. One thing I came to hate, however, was the gentle hum of whispered conversations whenever the lecturers would speak, which appeared to be a done thing in Spain… I can only imagine the look on one of my current lecturer’s faces if I decided it acceptable to conduct a mini-conference during their class.  I’m a stalwart for manners, and this pushed me close to the edge!

Making friends as native English speakers was something that, luckily, came quite easily. People quickly realised that I wasn’t from Madrid (or Spain, for that matter), and after making several guesses at French, English or Irish, they would often remark enthusiastically on how cool it was to have a Scottish person at the University, although pronouncing ‘Callum’ proved to be quite a challenge for most. The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) organised many social outings and these really helped me to immerse myself in all aspects of Spanish culture. I feel my year wouldn’t have been quite the same without them all. I found a whole host of people who wanted to do similar things to me, be it heading out into the bright city lights during the day, or braving the crazy Spanish party lifestyle by night. The ESN society was something that I didn’t expect to be so helpful and fun, but not only were they there to help us enjoy ourselves in Madrid but they were there if we ever needed a solution a Spanish problem or a friendly face to chat to. The experience with the ESN in Spain led me to enquire more about the ESN back at Heriot Watt and will be a good break from my fourth year studies this year.

All in all, it was an incredible five months for me in Madrid. I’ve been back several times since, and I’ve yet to spend a penny on accommodation. People are always so warm and welcoming when I go back, and I credit it all to my year abroad. Meeting new people and hearing their stories are one of the reasons I decided to study languages in the first place, and there is truly no better place to do this than on your year abroad. It amazes me how small the world becomes the older I get. Technology and cheap air travel make keeping in touch with friends, old and new, easier than ever. If you’re lucky enough to be sent by your university on a year abroad, make sure you challenge yourself. As they say, if you’re not living life on the edge, you’re probably taking up too much room.

Hasta luego!

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