Jena Nassar: España as Text 2022

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

Hi everyone! My name is Jena Nassar and I am in my last semester at FIU as a Nutritional Sciences major. I am on the pre-optometry track and will be attending the NSU College of Optometry in 2022. Since my freshman year, I have always looked forward to the opportunity to Study Abroad as an Honors College student. Through the tribulations and uncertainty of the past two years, it was unclear whether an experience like this was still feasible. So as I’m writing these reflections throughout various destinations in Spain, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I have to broaden my knowledge through this interdisciplinary course, and to do so with Professor Bailly and the lifelong friends I’ve made along the way!

Madrid as Text

“El Rastro Fiasco,” by Jena Nassar of FIU in Madrid, España on June 12, 2022

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

Having siblings a lot older than me means realizing my upbringing has been a lot different than theirs. My brother and sister grew up in Spain in the late 80s, while I was born in Miami in 2001. Thus, they were raised in an entirely different environment, surrounded by a different language and culture. Being Middle Eastern, yet incorporating the Spanish customs my siblings adopted during their childhood in Valencia has always created an interesting dynamic in my house. It’s as if there was an entirely different life that my family lived before I was born, and I’ve formed my own memories of them through the retelling of childhood stories. My time in Madrid has given me the opportunity to experience these stories for myself— particularly, while we visited El Rastro. 

El Rastro is an open air flea market located in Madrid, open every Sunday. I knew this day would be meaningful to me as while living in Spain, one of my dad’s first businesses was selling jeans at the local flea market. As expected, I’ve heard countless retellings of the flea market hustle, the bargaining, and the laboriousness of setting and packing up in the dry Valencia heat. Yet I have never experienced a true, authentic flea market for myself.

The market is located along Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores. As we trekked toward El Rastro as a class, little shops and tables began to appear along the street the closer we got to the market. Once we finally arrived, we were met by a courtyard of tables adorned with various tiny trinkets, one of a kind shoes, books, and nearly anything one could hope to find at a flea market. Professor Bailly had explained that so many of these items were obscure because they are often items that are found in the streets that are able to be resold. The deeper we explored into the market, the more commercial the shops seemed to be. I noticed much of the stores sold the same types of clothing, just with prices varying by one or two euros. Nonetheless, there were still some incredibly unique shops that I could not help but be in awe of, such as one that was dedicated to selling entirely vintage cameras and recorders. 

The way in which the sellers communicated, the kindness and attention they’d offer as I browsed their tables really struck a core with me. Sure, some might just be looking for an easy customer, but most of the people I encountered showed genuine warm-heartedness and wanted to know more about where I was visiting from and how I enjoyed the city thus far. Through these small but meaningful encounters, I could not help but to think of the young hustler my father was as he worked at the flea market nearly 30 years ago, trying to provide for my mother and siblings. It is experiences like this that truly made me realize I may have been feigning the stories and memories I’ve heard from before I was born as my own— part of my identity of having a “Spanish past.” Now, I’m getting the opportunity to experience the Spanish culture for myself. I’m proud to say the tables have turned, and I get to be the one to come home and tell my friends and family about my own Spanish experience and his things have changed since their time here. 

Toledo as Text 

“The Study Abroad Dream,” by Jena Nassar of FIU in Segovia, España on June 15, 2022

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

The Aqueduct of Segovia is a 2000 year old system which is essentially a structural masterpiece. Most of the aqueduct consists of double arched columns, with channels that carry the water. These rows don’t require any mortar to hold them together. Rather, the 20,400 blocks of stone are laid atop one another and held together by balancing forces on the rocks. In fact, the aqueduct is the only Roman aqueduct made without cement, which historians are not sure the reason for. 

While I had seen pictures of the aqueduct through class lectures, I didn’t quite grasp the grandness of its structure. Through our walk, I couldn’t help but to constantly peer my neck up for a look at the entire height of the pillars, which amazed me. Even more so is la Catedral de Segovia, which is a gothic style church located in the main square of the city. 

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

Following our exploration of the town and Cathedral, our Professor offered students an unforgettable opportunity to hike through Segovia. I’ve always envisioned having the dream “study abroad moment,” and this hike was the picture-perfect one. This excursion provided the opportunity to further get to know my classmates outside of a lecture walk, and simply bask in the magnificence of Segovia and the views it has to offer. And while this trip certainly involved taking in the present moment, it was also a time to reflect on the past two years— where great times outdoors with friends seemed to be something of the past or very distant future. And the realization that I was in Europe, studying abroad with an incredible group of people, having the abroad experience I’ve dreamed of for a few years was finally happening. 

Sevilla as Text

“Coexistence in Architecture,” by Jena Nassar of FIU in Sevilla, España on June 19, 2022

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

As the second location to stay in during our time in Spain, I was incredibly excited to arrive in Sevilla. As soon as our class got the opportunity to explore the city, it was evident Sevilla had a certain charm to it. Different from Madrid, the architecture appeared to be a combination of Roman and Islamic architecture. The Romans founded Sevilla, and they established the city of Italica. Sevilla eventually became an Islamic city in 711, and remained under Islamic control for 500 years, explaining its present-day style. 

While under this Islamic rule, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together— known as the convivencia. This union could be seen throughout Sevilla, as many of the churches used to be synagogues, but have Moorish architecture within them. Similarly, La Giralda is an Islamic minaret with a catholic bell tower atop. 

As a class, we had the opportunity to visit the Real Alcazar and Catedral. The Catedral is the largest Gothic building in Europe and is home to Christopher Columbus’ tomb, which my classmates and I found interesting as the tour guide mentioned it so casually. We then proceeded to the roof of the Catedral, where we were able to get a full view of the intricate architectural styles surrounding the building. All over the roof were large  stones called “mushroom caps,” which when lifted revealed a hole looking down into the cathedral. Peering through this hole was one of the most interesting parts of the day, as from the inside, the holes on the roof seem tiny and inconspicuous. 

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

Granada as Text

“The Red Castle,” by Jena Nassar of FIU in Granada, España on June 21, 2022

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)
Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

At last, it was finally the day trip I had been looking forward to the most during our time in Spain. As a Muslim in America, it is not often I get to indulge in the intrigues and history of my religious beliefs in an academic environment. Many like me have grown up accustomed to most discussions about Islam being that of negative misconceptions. For these reasons, I was incredibly excited to dedicate an entire day to exploring Granada and its incredible history, and learning more with my classmates about Islam. 

The medieval part of Granada is formed by the Alhambra and Albaycin, the Islamic city. The Alhambra exemplifies decor and architecture constituting Nasrid art. The Generalife gardens were used for agriculture during the medieval period. As we first stepped through the gateway, we were greeted by these gardens with an intricate design which wisely utilizes the landscape. The view seemingly went as far as the eye could see, with incredible foliage and Islamic architecture. 

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

While it may not seem to be that big of a deal to some, it was quite surreal for me to be hearing Arabic words I speak at home being spoken in class. Even just seeing the Arabic calligraphy on the walls of Alhambra, it didn’t take long for me to think of the walls of my grandmother or aunts and uncles houses, adorned with our customary and religious art. But I also couldn’t help but to think how amazed my ancestors would be to know we traveled all this way to learn about the origins of Granada and the intricacies of the Islamic buildings. It was also by the interest of my friends and classmates that I was able to teach a few how to read some of the Arabic calligraphy. 

Coming into this course, I was not aware how little non-Muslims new about Islam. I’ve always had a slight chip on my shoulder that people may take what they hear about Islam from the news and use that to form their perception of the religion, or even me. Yet by the end of the day, hearing my classmates feel comfortable enough to want to ask me questions about my religion and where I come from truly made the excursion surpass each of my hopes and expectations for the day.

Sitges as Text

“Deering’s House,” by Jena Nassar of FIU in Sitges, España on June 26, 2022

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

Having spent a few years now learning of Charles Deering’s cultural relevance to Miami, there was no better way to conclude one of the last days of our study abroad than by exploring Sitges. I admittedly did not know much about Sitges or what Deering’s business consisted of there specifically, but I quickly came to learn that he spent much time living in Sitges, collecting artwork and having them installed in his mansion, named Palau de Maricel. It is this collection of artwork that Deering brought with him to the United States. 

As Deering contributed much to Sitges, such as through funding the development of a new hospital and a school for girls, he became known as the “adopted son” of Sitges. As we discussed Deering’s generosity to the city during our walking lecture, I couldn’t help but to internally think to myself “…our Deering? The Deering I’ve spent years learning about back in Miami?” Being so far from home, it was a real wake-up call and reminder of the grand-scale connections that have happened across countries, forming our world, individual histories and cultures into what we know today. Having stood in his estate back in Miami many times before, to now exploring his former mansion in Spain, I was reminded that this was a direct, tangible connection that I could see right before my eyes. Though perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Afterall, I suppose the whole reason we are in Spain was because of him– Deering was the biggest common factor linking us to Miami, bridging the large gap between our home and España.

Barcelona as Text

“Oh my, Gaudi” by Jena Nassar of FIU in Barcelona, España on July 25, 2022

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

Of all the incredible works and designs displayed throughout Spain, nothing in my opinion quite compares to the magnificence of Antoni Gaudi’s creations. Much of his work is located in Barcelona, and we had the privilege of exploring the city and experiencing his marvelous designs while learning more about his life and influences. 

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

Gaudi completely dedicated his life to the construction of the Sagrada Familia, putting aside all other work to submerge himself in its designs. It’s hard to imagine the decades spent constructing it, and it is yet to be completed. What struck me the most about the basilica is its sheer size. In the same way as a forest, your eyes immediately follow the columns straight to the ceiling, and incredible stained-glass shine vibrantly colored light into the basilica. I found that much of his work reminded me of some element of nature. Standing in Park Guell, I felt connected to the free-flowingness and beauty of the environment. The benches were curvy, reminding me of waves with vibrant colors taking over the landscape. The scene almost appeared like a real life candy-land, with buildings that resembled colorful gingerbread houses. It’s interesting to think how the parks and architecture compare to nothing I’ve ever seen back home. The only time I’ve experienced such a landscape has been in an Orlando theme park, where the towns are built as visual sets. But Park Guell was all real– with colorful mosaics, extravagant, rocky columns, history, and an incredible view overlooking Barcelona. 

Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0)

While still working as an architect for the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi was struck by a trolley car. After being mistaken as a beggar, he was left to lose consciousness on the street, as no one would bother taking a poor street beggar to the hospital. Once a police officer finally took him, he received low quality care. By the time Gaudi was recognized as the architect of the Sagrada Familia, he was in poor health and passed away on June 10, 1926. Clearly if they had known who he was early on, Gaudi may have lived. Why is one’s right to care and human decency contingent on their status in the world? It’s saddening to know Gaudi never got to see the completion of his life’s work, but even more so that a person was lost due to bigoted individuals around him. 

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