Learning that life is a carnival in Spain

  • Education
  • Sunday, 30 Nov 2003


While lessons may be long and tedious, life as an exchange student in Spain is rich and rewarding, full of surprises at every turn, writes DEBBITA TAN

LIFE springs surprises on us now and then. On Dec 16 last year, I found myself in beautiful Barcelona, Spain, with Surita Kaur, one of my best friends and course mates at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).  

We were the first two USM “ambassadors” to study in Esade, a university under the umbrella of Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona. 

It all began in the final weeks of 2001, when Surita and I chanced upon an ad posted by USM’s International Relations Office (IRO) encouraging students to participate in student exchange programmes. We applied, and were told after a selection interview that Esade would be one of our options. 

Until then, both of us had been studying Spanish in USM for about a year. Our Spanish lecturer, Susana Martinez, was instrumental in terms of motivation and support. In April last year, when told that we had been selected by Esade, we decided to study for a full term, from January to March this year. 

The months before our departure was a time of preparation. It wasn’t easy, but the process taught us a lot about planning and decision-making. The IRO and other departments in USM played their part and were helpful. 

MAJESTIC: Antoni Gaudi's masterpiece, the Church of the Holy Family (La Sagrada Familia) in Barcelona.

After a 17-hour flight, we arrived at Barcelona’s airport, El Prat. From there, we took a taxi to Hostal Palacios, the loveliest little hotel we had ever seen. We would soon discover that Barcelona is dotted with these inexpensive and cosy little inns. What a good start we had in Barcelona!  

The next day, we had our first Spanish breakfast – bocadillos (Spanish-style sandwiches) and cafe con leche (black coffee with hot milk). 

Over the next few days, we were typical tourists (with our backpacks, cameras and maps) visiting many places in central Barcelona – from the colourful stretch of Las Ramblas to the ancient gothic quarters in Barri Gotic. And of course, we didn’t miss out on the architectural wonders of Antoni Gaudi, including his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia (the Church of the Holy Family), with its majestic towers and spires. 

Price hunt 

Generally, the cost of living in Spain isn’t high, compared to other European countries, such as Britain, Switzerland and Germany. However, in big cities like Barcelona and Madrid, the cost of accommodation can be quite steep, although food and household items are relatively cheap. People do their shopping on weekdays and Saturdays, and on Sundays most establishments close; even the Underground Metro runs fewer trains. 

A prime concern when studying abroad is accommodation. The search for a cheap place to stay, or piso hunt, as international students in Barcelona call it, is seemingly never-ending.  

In the first 10 days, we appeared to have lost the “piso war”. But by a stroke of good faith, we ended up renting a double-bed room in the apartment of the owner of Hostal Palacios. So, after almost a fortnight, we finally stopped living out of our suitcases and settled down in an apartment on Rambla de Catalunya, one of Barcelona’s two “golden” streets; the other one being Passeig de Gracia. 

A month later, we moved to a bigger apartment with a terrace on Passeig de Gracia for the same price. One way of finding good accommodation is to refer to the university’s bulletin board regularly and let other students know that you’re looking for a place to stay. 

Barcelona is located in the region of Catalonia (Catalunya) in the Iberian peninsula. It has been said that God must have been feeling truly inspired the day He created Catalonia. Indeed, the region has it all – from art and history to food, fashion and fiestas. 

Picasso, Dali, Miro, Tapies – some of the best and brightest artists of the last century – had strong links to the city. A splendid place for museums, Barcelona and in fact, Catalonia itself, is a dynamic hub of creativity.  

And as far as history goes, the region of Catalonia was visited by the likes of the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Goths and Moors through the ages. The first known inhabitant walked across the land almost half a million years ago. 

Food, fashion and fiestas 

While each region in Spain has its own special cuisine, they all serve typical Spanish fare as well. Our gastronomic experiences ranged from paella (a Spanish rice dish) to tapas (appetisers accompanied by wine) and the ubiquitous pastas.  

CROSSING BORDERS: Debbita (left) with Eve in Belgium on a sunny spring day.

Of course, there is also typical Catalan cuisine, which consists of bread rubbed with tomatoes and olive oil, homemade botifarra sausages with haricot beans, and codfish with salad.  

The food here may get a little oily sometimes, but hey, there’s always good Spanish beer, wine and sangria (red wine with fruit juices) to wash it all down.  

Dessert is heavenly! From the sinfully rich profiteroles (fat creampuffs drowned in thick hot chocolate) to the delightful postre de Catalunya (squares of nougat ice cream dribbled with dark chocolate and served with fresh strawberries). 

Another delight in Barcelona is fashion. From autumn to spring, residents of this fashionable city have to dress warmly, but they sure do dress well. It is here that maverick designers wave their magical wand to put the sparkle on apparel ranging from classy vintage to chic modern.  

Classic denim, knee-high boots, shiny leather pants, hip belts, sophisticated tops and tailored coats are the norm for the city’s trendy youth, and yes, also for the city’s equally fashionable senior citizens. 

Now we all know about celebrations, but Spanish fiestas are really something. The Barcelona of vicious bullfights and crowds of dancers in frilly garments (men included) do exist. And it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to find them.  

Christmas and New Year’s Eve saw joyous Spaniards dancing away in the plazas and on the streets, waving champagne bottles and singing their hearts out. The mood for celebration is contagious in Spain, and Spaniards are a delightful lot to be with during festivities. 

Among the most celebrated festivals in the Catalonia region is the festival of the Castellers. Although there isn’t any league or set rules, the Castellers or human towers possess a rivalry and passion comparable to that found in football. Throughout our stay in Spain, we celebrated festivals and carnivals in different places with other exchange students as well as local ones. 

Classes and nightlife 

School began on Jan 13. We registered for four business courses specified for international students. Classes in Esade are tedious, each lasting an average of 3.5 hours. Spanish language classes are 2.5 hours each.  

Esade is a very modern university. Set amidst peaceful surroundings close to a monastery, it is well equipped in terms of technology. In essence, studying in Europe is different. Creativity is greatly encouraged, spontaneity is credited and initiative highly regarded.  

Esade strives to build confidence in its students. Top executives of international companies are often invited to the classroom to share their insights, while students are trained to present ideas before a large audience. 

Before classes began, we attended an orientation, a welcome reception, a treasure hunt in the maze of Barri Gotic, a dinner party and a disco night out at the hip Maria Cubi that lasted till 4am. The Spaniards are known for their ability to stay up late and party all night! By the end of our stay in Barcelona, we had seen much of its nightlife. The places we visited were either very modern, such as uptown Maremagnum, or stylishly classic, like those found in the tiny streets of Ciutat Vella, the Old City. 

CARNIVAL TIME: Participants decked in exotic make-up and costumes for a lively Spanish fiesta in Sitges, 40km from Barcelona.

On weekends or even weekdays, students like to get together for a leisurely dinner in an inexpensive restaurant close to town. In Spain, it is common to have lunch from 2pm to 4pm, while dinner is at 10pm.  

After dinner comes pub-crawling, whereby a group of friends may visit a few bars for drinks and chats before heading to the discotheques around 2am. More friends may join in as the night goes on. 

It is common for disco sessions to last till 7am, after which everyone would go for breakfast before heading home to sleep or to get ready for the day’s activities. Doesn’t anyone sleep in this city? Yes they do, but what Barcelona will teach you is that night time isn’t always the best time to sleep. It’s all part of Spanish culture and lifestyle. 

Like many parts of Europe there is so much to do and experience in Spain. We attended salsa dance classes, tried skiing on the mountainous slopes of Andorra and travelled to different places. 

Winter term 

Part and parcel of studying abroad is learning about other cultures. Through our Spanish friends, we became familiar with certain customs, among them the common practice of dos besos (two kisses). It is considered polite to greet one another with a kiss on both cheeks when you meet, as a gesture of warmth and acceptance. 

However, while Spaniards are very expressive, open and warm people, they are not usually inclined to invite you to their homes for dinner. Instead, it is more in their culture to take you out, which is great because they bring you to the best local eateries, which are not overpriced touristy restaurants. It’s pretty much like Penangites taking guests out to New Lane or Gurney Drive to feast on hawker fare. 

Our term in Esade was dubbed the “winter term.” February was the coldest month. When we backpacked to Italy, France and Belgium in April and May, the weather was milder as spring drew nigh.  

Life as an exchange student is incredible. We got to meet people of various nationalities with whom we went to many places together as a large, cheerful group. We met people from many countries as well as from other regions of Spain. Through them we learnt many things we could only have learnt outside the classroom. When we visited Belgium in May, Eve, our Belgian friend, put us up in her lovely country home. 

Ironic as it may sound, I learnt more about Malaysia while I was abroad. We were asked so many questions about our way of life and by answering them as best I could, I got to know more about our country. 

Living the life of an exchange student is a challenge, an experience and a joy. All in all, it was a meaningful experience I was truly blessed to have.  

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