Hello, Santander

So, here I am, in the city I’m going to call home for the next five months. Getting here has been both more and less of an adventure than I expected; I’m still not exactly sure what to make of all that’s happened, especially in this sort of a public environment, but I’m going to try. Have patience, please.

As I wrote last time, I arrived in Santander on Saturday the 5th. What I didn’t write, at least not in any real detail, was that I was completely emotionally worn out. Arriving in Santander was, thus, a relief—somewhere I would be for a long enough time to be able to re-acclimate to having a routine, to doing life more normally, albeit in a country that was still foreign to me. A complete lack of adjustment would have been ludicrous, so even as I let myself relax, I was cognizant of the fact I didn’t have too long a period in which to do that—supposedly, real life was to start up again on Monday when I started my classes. That’s not exactly what happened.

I did enjoy a true Sabbath the day after I arrived. It’s almost as though the city goes to sleep on Sundays—nothing is open, so I was surprised by the number of people I passed in the streets when left for a stroll that afternoon. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, though. Santander’s climate is similar to Seattle, the winters in particular notoriously wet and overcast. It’s like The Classic Crime sings in “Vagabonds,” though—people can’t get enough of living in the darkness and the rain, but when the sun comes out, the streets are filled with song. The plaza by the indoor market was completely full of little tykes enjoying a makeshift carnival, the Boardwalk was alive even though nothing was open…I had to agree with them, though, it was a Marseille-perfect day outside and it would have been a crime to waste it. The previous day had been marked by hail falling down Pilar’s chimney and more wind than should have been allowed.

I walked for a long time that day, probably close to as much as I did in Frankfurt. Other than that, I didn’t do much of anything. I wanted a day when I didn’t have to think, because the next day, I would be at the University before it opened in order to register for orientation and take care of my classes. That was real life, or at least the beginning of it. So that’s what I did—that side of registration was a breeze, and I learned that classes actually wouldn’t start until the next week. Since orientation didn’t start until Wednesday, that meant I had another free day. Go figure—I’m in Spain.

Orientation was somewhat of a relief when it came. For those who know me at all, you know there’s  little that drains my energy like having nothing to do, so getting busy again was a relief. I’d had a bit of an adventure on top of that, though; the previous day, I had spent an hour and a half being lost on campus as I was given the run-around trying to get my student card activated, the card that I charge so I can print things, charge under a different system of charges (the city versus the university—they’re different, as I learned) so I could use the city busses, the card that lets me access computers…basically, the card that’s necessary for every basic student function I make here. After my first attempt was unsuccessful, I walked to the first day of orientation in horizontal rain and 40 mph winds that threatened to break the umbrella I’d been using as a shield—I hadn’t yet figured out I could take a bus to campus yet—and was promptly swept into a series of activities that seemed preprogrammed to wear me down.

Group socializing and smalltalk is not fun for me. I would much rather sit down at a table with just one other person and have a great conversation; I’m not shy by any means, my Myers-Briggs is ESTJ, but I am awkward in groups because knowing when to jump into a conversation is for some reason very difficult for me. Unfortunately, lots of mingling and conversation, albeit with a couple (arbitrary) changes of setting, ended up being all the day held. By the time the jaunt around the bay had ended, I was worn down enough that I fell asleep on the ferry we’d boarded rather than have another conversation with as much substance as a teaspoon with people I didn’t know.

We were all but left to our own devices once we’d arrived at port again. I found that strange, though a measure of my confusion was likely attributed to the fact I was low and had just woken up from a nap. Still, I had the distinct sense going in that the program was going to continue being a bit confused in this same manner. It wasn’t—the next two days were decidedly more well-organized and included trips to small villages that ended up being quite enjoyable—but neither was it as much a necessity as those I’d spoken with had advised. If anyone reading this is considering following in my footsteps, talk with me if you want to know more. What the day did provide a gateway to was meeting other people. However, even that must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt: the people you meet at international student orientation are, shocker, international students, so if your plan is to meet lots of locals, it might not be as necessary as it sounds.

We were in between spells of rain when I started rather confusedly to walk home. I hadn’t walked 50m when someone I vaguely remember introducing myself to called my name. He asked in Spanish where I was headed—home, I answered, as I’m not really sure what’s going on—would I like to have dinner with him and his friends? They’re all Mexican, so I’ll be speaking Spanish, unless that’s a problem. No, that’s not a problem. Sure, why not.

I spent probably the next eight or so hours at their flat, eating spaghetti, learning how to dance salsa and chatting a bit. I went home that evening feeling like it had been a good day; that set the tone for the next two, the parts of orientation that involved excursions to three or four small but picturesque pueblos and Picos de Europa national park. In the meantime, my little amoeba of friends got a little bigger and a lot more international. Germans, Italians, and Mexicans, oh my! My Mexican friends have a Spanish roommate with a Columbian girlfriend. The list goes on.

What I’m still celebrating to this day, though, is the fact I haven’t connected with any Americans. Other than Elizabeth, I don’t think I’ve spent any significant amount of time with any American. Ironically, the largest single group of exchange students here by far is a group of about 20-25 from North Carolina State—these guys have made a bit of a name for themselves in the University community, though, one I’d rather not be associated with. I’m the only student from Texas. My Texan friends may be proud of this, though: when people ask where I’m from, I’ve been saying I’m from Texas.

My point is, I’m the only American in my group of friends. It’s a strange feeling being on this end of things—even in Argentina, where most of my friends were locals, my two main girlfriends, Megan and Aurora, were American. Now, it’s just me with this group, and I love it. Though things haven’t been as ideal as I thought they would be, that’s one thing I absolutely would not change.

 

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A little farther into town.

 

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Friends.

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Fellow traveller.

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More friends.

Last week, I started my classes. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say my classes attempted to start, though even that gives them partially more credit than they deserve—what I’m trying to say is I’ve never before been in a position when I didn’t have enough schoolwork, though that’s exactly where I’m finding myself now. I’m taking the equivalent of twelve hours right now—since the only classes I have left are upper-level electives for my many majors and minors, matching courses was difficult, since I have such a tight schedule I don’t have any free-choice electives at all—and it turns out, my European Law course didn’t have enough students and is thus being taught online, and my Spanish class doesn’t start until March. Thus, I basically have two classes right now. One of them is a legit Economics class involving a 20-page paper (in Spanish…oh my.) at the culmination; the other is taught by a guy whose wit had the class in stitches and whose sheer intelligence rivals that of Dr. Novakovic, though he speaks so quietly I can hardly hear, let alone understand. The first class meets Wednesday through Friday, the second Wednesday and Thursday, so I have four-day weekends until the beginning of March. This week, though, I had a five-day weekend; my Economics professor cancelled tutorial on Friday since it was the first week.

Since the rest of the world does work on Monday, today I ended up inventing work for myself so I would have something to do. I spent the afternoon digging up articles for my Econ term paper like a pro. I also walked to and from the university several times, as the weather today was so perfectly sunny-and-65 it would have been a cardinal sin to waste it. Tomorrow I’ll probably write the paper for E-Law that’s due in the middle of March, just ‘cause I can. And if anyone would like to take a needle to my head to let the hot air out, perhaps that would be a good thing in the end.

Two more things, then I’m finished. There was a slightly more sinister reason behind my lack of motivation than just the fact I didn’t have any work to do. I’ve had severe clinical depression for almost half my life, something I’ve only really come to understand in the last two or three of those, and it came back with a vengeance right before I left for Europe. The problem was, I didn’t realize it until the middle of my second week here in Santander. But that’s not all: most of you who are reading this are well aware of the fact I’m a Christian and that I take my faith very seriously. If not, hopefully that will become clearer over time. When I came to Spain, I came with the understanding that Spain, like most of Europe, suffers from a different kind of poverty than the material: Spain and Europe more generally are what I like to call spiritually poor, victims of the Enlightenment and the subsequent rationalisation of life, the universe, and everything that followed, and here a kind of apathy has taken hold especially in my generation with a vengeance that’s so widespread it’s invisible. What I mean to say is that until Sunday, I’ve been the only practicing Christian I know of in this town. Maybe there are others among the exchange students or on campus, but they’re lost in the much louder and more widespread voices of those who want to fill the vacancy in their hearts with wild parties almost every night. My group of friends prefers smaller parties, the kind you find out about via text or word-of-mouth as opposed to Facebook broadcast, but deep down they’re not that different. I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it has been. But for someone like me, whose motto is “practice healthy optimism” and who wants so badly to see the best in people I sometimes don’t consider bad intentions until it’s far too late, my lack of selectivity in people I spend time with ended up getting me in trouble and now I’m at the point where I may have to start over.

I know everything happens for a reason. However, the incident within my amoeba just so happened to be timed such that I decided to withdraw my participation in their trip to Bilbao on Saturday. I spent the day in communion of the type I haven’t experienced since December with the Lord instead when he reminded me that the week before, I’d made plans to pay a visit to a Baptist church on Sunday. That visit was well-rewarded. The church is small and leans toward the charismatic side, but the leader of the college Bible study, who gave Sunday’s Word, is spot on. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed communion with other believers until I had it again; I’ll see them again on Friday, I hope if not before then, but it’s so good to be back.

Saturday, a friend I made in Vienna will be passing through Santander, so we’ll visit before he goes back to Brazil. Until then, it’s paper, class, yoga, and sunshine, plus a Bible study Friday afternoon and maybe a couple of coffee dates with friends here before then. This week I think my life for the next few months will finally take shape—one way or another, I’ll write again soon.

p.s. Last time, I wrote about an odd incident with my host mother and the other American student we’d originally been planning to have in the house. That whole thing was a big miscommunication—the guy has a place to live and barely had to wait any time at all before that was taken care of. Pilar has a large and very well-educated family that I love, is a great cook and a wonderful person—despite a couple of miscommunications that are inevitable across language and custom, things have been smooth sailing, and I can say without a doubt I have the cream of the crop in terms of places to live in Spain. All is well on that front.

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