Study Away Reflections: Melody LaPlante ’10 (Sevilla, Spain)

During the Spring 2009 semester, Business Administration major Melody LaPlante studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain. Here she recounts her semester of cultural experiences, horseback riding in the Spanish countryside and provides advice for other travelers.

Melody at the Colosseum

Traveling to Spain was something that I thought I had planned for; I had been in high school for a weeklong trip. I had read travel books on the country; I had studied the running of the bulls in Pamplona and learned the geography of the country. What I hadn’t planned for, and probably could not have planned for, was living in a country where everyone spoke a language I had only studied in school and my family was thousands of miles away. Coping with these two realities taught me so many things about myself that I do not feel I could have learned at the University of Maine.  My favorite memories of Spain were running through Sevilla, the city where I lived, and galloping on horseback through the countryside of Santiago de Compostela, a town outside the city. The section of the city where I lived was called Triana, the street that I lived on was called San Jacinto. Across from my apartment was a beautiful old church with a beautiful old tree in front. Next to my apartment was a mom and pop bakery that made delicious café con leche and even better fresh bread.  I learned that even with grammatically correct Spanish locals may not understand your accent and that a little confidence goes a long way.  Living in Spain was beautiful, fun, relaxing and overwhelming all at once.  I learned many things in Sevilla that I don’t think I could have learned at the University of Maine.

At the University of Maine I’ve had one experience of riding the bus in the three years’ time that I have been at school. I was one of five on the bus and it took an hour and a half to get to downtown Bangor, normally a 30 minute drive.  The bus system in Spain was my lifeline. Without it I would have never gotten to school every day and I would have never been able to take riding lessons.  The buses at first were very confusing for me and my roommates. We had a bus map of the city and a series of bus lines that ran during the day and at night. At first I rode the buses with my roommate Alexis. We would sit forty minutes on a bus just to see where it went. Towards the end I became very bus savvy. I also became comfortable with any form of travel. I had never missed a flight before until I traveled to London; I survived, paid some money, stayed with friends and took a flight to Sevilla the next day. It is amazing what independent travel can do for a person’s confidence. I remember not being able to sleep the night before I left for Spain. I was tossing and turning just thinking about flying by myself… what if I couldn’t find my group at the airport? Little did I know that two months later I would be speaking a mix of Spanish and terrible Italian to get around the Rome airport and train station just to find my tiny hotel room on the fifth floor of an unmarked building. I think that I learned important tools for traveling by myself, I learned the importance of looking like a local and that smiling at people on the street is friendly, but rarely a good idea. International travel has an interesting recipe for success; one part survival, one part audacity, one part abandon and three parts open mindedness.

A bullfight in Spain

I had an interesting experience when my sister came to visit me in Sevilla. I had been to visit her in high school when she studied abroad in England. She loved the look of the city, the old world architecture. She hated the dirty looks we got from local women out at bars and the blatant passes that the men would make at us, things that I had stopped caring about a while before she arrived. She told me that in England she had loved having no language barrier, her friends in England even liked Americans.  As we walked the streets to buy a pint after dinner she turned to me and said “you are so much stronger than I am, I wouldn’t last two weeks here.” To hear her say that amazed me. I had never thought of the city that I lived in as uncomfortable or hard to live in. More importantly I would have never thought that I was stronger than my sister, or I could handle more than she could.  I think that college is about learning the curriculum and learning who you are. I learned more about myself in Spain than I had in three years in Maine.

Spanish culture is rich and homogeneous.  They love their food and their way of live. I found that most people have lived in Spain for generations and have no intention of leaving. I theorized that the reason why few people speak a language other than Spanish is for this reason. If you don’t plan on living in a different country, why would you learn a different language? Spanish people do not look much different from typical Americans in the northeast. The style of dress is similar, the consumerism is similar, and the sentiment is different. I found no work-a-holics, no students my age as obsessed with their future careers as me and my roommates were. While we were stressing about finding the perfect summer internship they were partying every night with friends and hoping to make enough money to support a modest lifestyle, college optional.  I found many people who had all the patience in the world for laundry drying on a line and little patience for outsiders.

Horseback riding through the countryside of Santiago de Compostela

College is an important time for a young adult to discover who they are. I believe that studying abroad goes one step farther. Studying abroad lets one discover not only who they are but also what they are made of.  There was a man who would walk up and down my street in Spain and talk to himself. Once on a bridge he reached out and touched my sister’s neck during the week that she was visiting. After that incident he noticed me when I walked up towards the Triana Bridge. A few times he stopped what he was doing and followed me. I found myself afraid to leave and walk towards the bridge (something I had to do daily). I would walk 40 minutes out of my way just to find an alternate route to avoid the bridge. I was afraid of the homeless man that wandered my street, but I didn’t let it stop me living my daily life. It did force me to make decisions and plan where I was going before I left the house. It also made me more conscious of being alone. I found emergency numbers for the police and saved them into my cell phone. If I was going out alone at night or early morning I would spend the money on a cab instead of walking alone.  From the day I noticed him following me I always made sure I went somewhere with a friend, especially at night. In a way I think this was a good thing because the actions I took because of the man I was afraid of kept me safer overall.  In Spain I learned that being safe did not mean being sheltered and that finding out who you are is something that has to be tested.