By Gabe Sturges
The rough hewn cobblestone streets pass underfoot while the mid-day Catalan sun reflects gloriously off the ancient terracotta roofs of the brightly colored buildings. Families, friends and lovers linger over incredibly strong cups of coffee while lounging along the Plaça Reves, the city’s main street. I continue, searching for a peaceful place to think and begin to write.
As I sit now, blossoming orange trees shade me from the sun in an ancient Roman courtyard. Without hesitation, Gerona is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
Perhaps I should give a bit of background to such an idyllic scene. After months and months of exhaustive planning, I was selected as eligible for an Independent Study Abroad, or ISA, though Union. The ISA provides the means for students to pursue a term abroad experience, but to do so in a locale not offered by one of Union’s programs, or to study an academic subject or personal interest in greater depth.
When I graduate, I would like to become a translator or interpreter. Though I am a Spanish major at school, my interest in the culture and language branches far outside the classroom. As such, I wanted to throw myself into Spanish culture—completely alone—to have the greatest opportunity to improve my language skills and explore the culture of the “real Spain.” Or in this case, the “real Cataluña.”
For my ISA, I am living in Girona, Spain, a fortified medieval town in the far north of the region of Cataluña near both the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea.
I would like to mention again the fact that I am living in Girona. That in itself is the true beauty of the ISA. Though any Union term abroad pushes students to explore and adapt to the respective culture in which they are staying, the ISA throws one into the thick of it.
There are no barriers nor pre-planned group excursions. After the initial first few days, one ceases to be a tourist and instead becomes a true member of the local society—though a temporary one at that. While that includes all the boring minutia of everyday life from doing laundry and getting groceries, it means above all speaking the local language. Even in my first two weeks, nothing makes one feel closer to learning about cultural identity than using the native language—arguably the lifeblood of a people.
In Cataluña, this poses a bit of a problem. Though Castellano is the official language of Spain, several regions have their own distinct tongue, including Cataluña. Catalan, much like Spanish, is a romance language that is best described as a mix of Spanish and French.After decades of cultural repression by Franco in Cataluña, Catalan has returned with a vengeance.
It is a matter of pride here to speak Catalan, and one is just as likely to hear it spoken on the street as Spanish. For this reason, I am taking daily Catalan lessons and am (very) slowly picking it up. If, for example, someone asked me what my favorite color is or to count to ten, they would likely be startled by my mastery of the language.
There is no doubt about it; being thrust into a situation—foreign in every sense of the word—is a huge challenge. But even within my short time here, the rewards have far overshadowed it. Above all, I have begun to meet wonderful people and make friends.
The conversations and initial meetings were clumsy, but as time passes, just like my speaking, the relationships become fluid.
Traveling to a place in which you know no one is the greatest motivation to get out and do. I am experiencing things that I never would have dreamed of had I not had the courage to come here by myself. I have been given an inside glimpse into this incredible culture and have been welcomed by everyone I’ve met. In short, so far, the experience has been nothing less than incredible.