With only a few weeks left, I want to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned during the semester in Spain that might be helpful to others studying in Spain (and abroad in general) in the future. I think that studying in a foreign country is one of the best opportunities available to students as it allows them to see the world from a different perspective. Depending on the country one visits, his or her experience will be completely different and offer him or her a unique lens through which to view the culture and events of the world.
The two things I was most concerned about before coming to Spain were and what I would do about having a cell phone and what I should pack. Being in a foreign country with a bunch of people you’ve never meet before, your cellphone and Facebook become your best ways of staying in touch with people and making plans. In Spain, you’re not charged for incoming text messages or phone calls and if you have the same carrier as your friends, calls among you are free (except for the 15 cent connection fee they don’t tell you about!). Because of this, it’s best to sign up with all your friends so that you can talk for as long as you want (or at least for 10 minutes) without raking in charges. Spain, and most of Europe, use the GSM network, so if you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile you can use your own phone abroad as long as it is unlocked. For those of you on Verizon and Sprint, you’re out of luck unless you have a world phone like a Blackberry. You can buy a phone here, but it is definitely cheaper to just buy a SIM card to put into your own phone. I brought my phone to Spain and went with MásMovil where I was able to get a free SIM with the purchase of 15 minutes of talk time. MásMovil by far the cheapest solution in terms of calling and texting charges, and it also offers the ability to keep track of your charges through a well-designed online interface and lets you set up automatic recharging with a credit card. I know this sounds like an ad, but I was just really happy with the service I received. Before leaving, I recommend trying to find an old or used GSM phone from friends/family or online through Ebay to avoid having to buy one here. For those going to Spain, avoid HappyMóvil. Nearly all of my friends used it and had tons of issues like being charged for minutes that were never added to the account and poor customer service. Most of the cheaper prepaid carriers do not work outside of Spain, so if you’re planning on doing a lot of traveling you’ll want to look into their Europe coverage before making any sort of purchase.
Packing for a semester abroad is almost like packing for college. You have limited room in your suitcase and most likely in your room where you’ll be living, so pack sparingly and plan ahead. Two weeks worth of clothes should be plenty, especially if you’re living with a host family as they usually do laundry at least once a week. Planning around seasons can be difficult as the weather differs much throughout Europe. Spain is similar to the U.S. in that winter in the north lasts longer with more snowfall, while the south and coast are more temperate. In Madrid, the winter temperature stays around the freezing point while the Fall can be in the 50s-60s F and the summer can get into the 80s or higher. The best advice I can give is to pack for different situations and bring clothes that you’ll be able to layer so you can get the most of packing lightly.
There is more to packing than clothes, however, and this may be the most important thing to consider depending on where you go. You can get clothes anywhere, but medicines and toiletries differ from country to country. If you have a medicine that you take on a daily basis, bring enough for the entire duration if possible as it could be hard to get it while abroad. I haven’t bought contact lens solution in Spain, but we were told multiple times that it is different so I’d recommend bringing enough if you can. As far as school supplies go, Spaniards are not fans of college ruled notebooks, so if you are bring your own. Also bring your favorite writing instruments and don’t let your Dad take them out at the last minute to save weight in your suitcase! Definitely bring a computer, but if you have a 15” computer as I do you might want to consider a netbook or something a little smaller because it’s been pretty hard to travel with such a large computer.
Now for some general advice! Have fun and live with an open mind. The most important thing is to mesh with the culture while not losing sight of the fact that you’re only abroad for a limited time. This is something that I’ve struggled with a lot here (see the previous post) and is a difficult balance to find. There will be cultural differences, but don’t freak out. People are generally kind and forgiving (especially in Spain), so if you mess up don’t take it too hard and just learn from your first mistakes. Try new things, explore the culture and explore yourself! I realize that this post ended up being more advice on what to do about communicating and a little about packing, with barely anything about living, but there is really no advice to give for that except to enjoy it! There will be work and things might seem tough at times between the change in culture and missing home, but if you always keep in mind that you’re studying abroad surrounded by people and students from another country and another culture with a different view of the same world, it will be impossible not to find new and amazing discoveries each day.