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!
Throughout our time in the Spring, I had come to learn that I was one of the few non-Cuban students in our Study Abroad class. As covered during the semester, Cubans have Spanish ancestry, with Cuba being Spain’s first real stepping stone to the Americas. This seemed to offer personal substance to many of my classmates. They were being given the opportunity to explore the realm of their ancestors, regardless of how distant their ties may be. In contrast, I came into this understanding that I may have a different perspective. I was set to embark on a trip where I felt I was to learn about Spain’s ties to Miami– not me personally. I was excited for my fellow classmates and the unique perspective they would be able to explore with their ancestry, but I didn’t just want to sit back and observe. I wanted to discover my own ties; how as a non-Spanish, non-Cuban, non-Catholic child of immigrants, I could possibly see a piece of myself within Spain. With that being said, I certainly found ways in which Spain related to Miami, but was stricken more by their differences culturally. I also found pieces of my religious and cultural identity all throughout Spain, more than I ever thought I would.
Societal Norms and Behaviors: Similar or Different?
Tipping and Serving
After spending as much time exploring Spain as we did, it’s inevitable to pick up on a few societal patterns. One of the first things we noticed was that tipping is not the norm. In America, leaving a tip is expected for servers, restaurant cashiers, drivers, etc. In Spain, many places do not even offer a tip percentage or option on receipts. However, I found that touristy areas were the exception. During our stay in Madrid, I spent a good amount of time in Sol, a relatively tourist-dominated neighborhood. While dining in this area, I found that receipts would provide a tip calculation at the bottom, something I didn’t see in many other areas.
Along with tipping, it is also customary in America that the waiter would return to a table to provide the check and pick it up once the customer has left their card. After spending too much time waiting for a check that never arrived, my classmates and I realized we needed to walk to the front of restaurants to pay at a cashier. But yet again, touristy areas were the exception as servers in those restaurants came to our table for the payment. It was interesting to experience the dynamic between neighborhoods that expected Americans or other foreigners and those that did not conform to American norms.
Personal Space and Social Etiquette
I found that the Spainiard idea of personal space isn’t like that of Americans. For example, as we spent time in Sitges and Playa de Barceloneta, fellow beachgoers would pass very close to my group and I. People would swim through us, not shying away from engaging in smalltalk with strangers. While it was kind to engage with us, it was quite surprising to see how often strangers acknowledged each other here as opposed to back home, where I feel many people simply keep to themselves. Similarly, people stand relatively close to each other while speaking to you, and may even touch your arm or shoulder while doing so. While again surprising, I quickly got used to it as it was evidently a cultural norm and not ill natured in any way. I also became aware that if you step into a shop, or even just an elevator with other strangers, it is normal to greet them as they enter and exit.
The Spaniard etiquette of being so friendly and open to others you don’t know is something I found to be really lovely at times. On a particular night where a group of us were playing music and dancing on the street while making our way home, a group of strangers going the opposite way joined in the moment as they passed. Making what may seem as a mundane, random moment into one of the funnest of the trip, it is thanks to the openness and approachability of Spanish people with good senses of humor.
While we didn’t experience the Spanish school system firsthand, I took it upon myself to research it a bit as it was an area of great interest to me. I have some family living in Spain, and I’ve heard recounts of their rigorous academic programs and was curious as to how it compared to the American school system. They claim they have it so much harder over there, and I can kind of see where they are coming from. My nephew has been living in Spain for some time now and takes most classes in Castellano (Spanish), but is also required to take a class in Valenciano, which is a dialect of Catalan. While the predominant language is Spanish, areas near the metropolitan Valencia use the local language. Things such as signs and metro announcements are made in Valenciano, but have the Castellano translation underneath. (Valencia-cityGuide.com)
I was not aware of how different the dialect could be, but realized why many schools in Spain would teach it in its own class. For example, the word “exit” would be “salida” in Castellano and “Eixida” in Valenciano. (Valencia-cityGuide.com) There is also Catalan, which is considered its own unique language. While my nephew isn’t required to take a class in Catalan at his school, it is incorporated into the curriculum of many other schools. It wasn’t until we went to a restaurant in Barcelona that I noticed the Catalan street signs with Castilian translations underneath. Though one restaurant we chose only had Catalan menus. Given that I hardly speak Spanish to begin with, I knew I was hopeless. But my classmates, who are fluent in Spanish, struggled with the menu a little as well– it makes sense to teach it in Barcelona schools as a language course.
While elementary school in America typically refers to kindergarten to 5th grade, the equivalent in Spain is primary school and goes up to 6th grade. It is in the last year of primary school that a foreign language, usually English, is incorporated into the curriculum. During secondary school, another language, usually French or German, is added to their education. (“Education System in Spain.”) School is mandatory and free for students between the ages of 6 and 16. Following secondary and higher secondary education (which is optional), students can move onto tertiary education, equivalent to college or university in America.
A notable difference between Spanish schools and American schools is that schools in Spain have a lunch break built into the day. Much like a siesta, students choose to stay at school or can be picked up to have lunch at home during the 2-2 ½ hour break (Brock). Leaving school midday and returning is practically unheard of in the US, where lunch breaks are about 45 minutes. This is also why the school days are a lot longer in Spain, usually running from 9am to 5pm (Brock). Meanwhile, elementary schools in America typically start around 8am and finish at 2pm.
Transportation… less of a headache than Miami traffic
If I could bottle up anything and bring it back to America, it’d be the friendliness of Spanish people and the efficiency of their metro system. Of all the Spanish norms rare to South Florida, I thoroughly enjoyed the public transportation options available. Not only was I able to learn the daunting metro system, I began to find it a lot easier than ordering cars or hailing taxis. Perhaps because the New York Subway system has an infamous reputation for being overcrowded, dirty, and sometimes dangerous, I was expecting a lot worse. There was always a station entrance nearby, it was able to take me to each neighborhood I needed to visit, eliminated traffic, and was relatively quick. It was an incredibly efficient system I wish I’d be able to utilize back home, because who wants to sit in standstill traffic?
Beyond the metro system, I made use of the bikes and scooters available to rent, which I found were popular during our stays in Sevilla and Barcelona. While I’ve seen them around a few times, I’ve never used them around Miami as I always have my car. But now that I know how fun they are I just might begin to ride them occasionally.
As for what I’d introduce to Spain, how about not charging for water? Given the heat and physicality of this Study Abroad class, I found myself constantly craving a glass of ice cold water. I guess it was my own fault for buying a small reusable bottle– it’d be empty by the time I reached the top of a flight of stairs. But I needed cold water refills so bad, I gave restaurants all my money.
Of all the things I expected to happen in Spain, finding so many parts of my own identity intertwined with its history and architecture was not high up there. I had a basic understanding of Islamic influence in certain parts of Spain, but did not expect that it would be as prominent to this extent. The first taste of grand Islamic influence came during our time in Cordoba, which was captured by Muslims in 711. Cordoba eventually fell in 1236 to King Ferdinand III, who turned the Great Mosque of Cordoba into a cathedral. (Ruralidays) Rather than destroying the mosque, it was preserved and built upon into the cathedral.
Stepping into such a grand and intricate mosque felt deeply moving. While I am a regular mosque goer, the ones in South Florida aren’t as magnificent in size and grandeur because they’re casually positioned within small communities. In fact, the only mosque I’ve stepped into which had this grand aura has been in the Middle East. For a moment, walking through the Mosque of Cordoba felt like walking in a mosque in Syria. The mindblowing part of the mosque comes as you walk toward the cathedral section, as it suddenly becomes well lit and adorned by crucifixion statues and paintings. I suppose I should be appreciative that the mosque was built upon rather than destroyed, but it simply doesn’t sit right. The lighting of the cathedral area contrasting with the dimness of the mosque section seems as to say one was superior to the other.
Something important to note about Islam is the purposeful lack of physical beings depicted in artwork. For this reason, my two Muslim classmates and I couldn’t help but just cringe at the statues feet away from what we see a mosque, which feels like a disrespect. After talking to fellow students, I was shocked to find out they also felt uncomfortable with the mosque’s conversion into a cathedral. I assumed they simply wouldn’t get it, but was proved wrong when they expressed the same feelings I internally had.
We further explored the impact of Islamic and Moorish influence in Granada. This day in particular was once again a unique experience. Growing up, I have been used to shying away from talking about my culture or religion for different reasons. For one, there are some people whose only perception of Islam or Middle Eastern culture is that of something negative– and you can’t always be sure which type of person you’re dealing with or how they will think of you. So it is a precautionary fear of people that do not care, will have a negative reaction, be judgemental or show prejudice in any way.
The entire trip, but Granada especially, has created the complete opposite experience for me as we were being submerged in islamic art and architecture. While I love my identity and sharing that part of myself, it has always been easier to keep that identity separate. Yet here I was teaching fellow classmates how to read Quranic phrases in Arabic, and it was because they approached me wanting to learn. I’ve never witnessed non-muslims appreciating Islam, or being so openminded to learning more about the beauty of the religion, so it was an experience that meant a lot to me.
Beyond the submersive lectures and tours I’m grateful to have experienced, I also learned much from my classmates. Many late-night talks were spent discussing our personal spiritual beliefs, our cultural differences, but more importantly, our similarities. I valued the opportunity to see my classmates pray after seeing the Black Madonna at the top of Montserrat, some saying they felt overwhelmed with emotion. Many dinners were spent with a group of us dining at nearby restaurants who served our different ethnic foods, teaching each other how to pronounce the foods and cultural etiquette. My classmates even promised me they would take us to their favorite Cuban restaurants back home, and proudly shared their families’ stories of moving from Cuba to Miami. It’s as though each one of us is a walking history book, we just need to be willing to take the time to open it and get to know each other’s stories. It is through these experiences that I felt we really bonded the most and where we became good friends more than just classmates.
Brock, Krista. “Five Differences between Schools in Spain versus US Schools.” Krista Brock, Author, 13 Nov. 2020, https://kristabrockauthor.wordpress.com/2019/08/14/five-differences-between-schools-in-spain-versus-us-schools/.
“Education System in Spain.” Spain Education System, Scholaro, https://www.scholaro.com/db/Countries/Spain/Education-System/.
Ruralidays. “Mosque of Cordoba, Spain: Interesting Facts: Ruralidays.” Ruralidays.com – Blog, Ruralidays, 20 Jan. 2020, https://www.ruralidays.co.uk/travel/culture/mosque-of-cordoba-spain-facts/.
Valencia-cityGuide.com. “Official Languages Spoken in Valencia, Spain.” Valencia Tourist Information – Valencia Tourist Information, http://www.valencia-cityguide.com/general-information/languages.html.