Nolan Takes Awkward Pictures with Churches
As you may know, I am a baptized Roman Catholic. As such, while studying abroad, it was my spiritual obligation to visit every ornate cathedral in Europe. And to take awkward pictures with all of them.
Thus, I present the special, high definition gallery: Nolan Takes Awkward Pictures with Churches.
An Open Letter to College Students:
Last January, after twenty hours of restlessly kneading airplane armrests and turbulent snowstorms, I landed in Madrid, Spain. I staggered off the plane and cowered before a city that stretched outward many miles, yet whose bulk was obscured by a haze. I swallowed hard. Then loaded into a taxi.
That was day one of study abroad.
I had never ventured off campus before, save for home and sheltered vacations. But when I left Madrid five months later, the world had become my campus. I had done it all: leapt closer to Spanish fluency, learned about diverse topics, taught grade schoolers English, tasted fearlessly, and immersed myself in independent adventure.
My confidence had heightened, as well as my awareness of the world. The experience had honed my passions and redirected my academic and career aspirations.
I had redefined myself.
College is for exploration. It’s for expanding horizons and violating comfort zones. While you will take a unique path, pursuing diverse passions and activities, study abroad can benefit you. There is a mind-opening quality about it. You see the world. You establish a second home. You sharpen communicative skills and may radically change your outlook on life.
Every path witnesses new views, perspectives, and ideas. If we are to challenge ourselves emotionally and intellectually, to grow as individuals, why not take that path abroad? Why not wander off the beaten Diag and onto the cobblestone streets of Lisbon or the thousands-year-old steps of Rome? Why not climb the Andes Mountains or double kiss Spaniards or share airplane conversations with South Africans?
Our footprints are our legacy. They tell our story — the long, triumphant strides when we sprinted to new heights, the stumbles when we grappled with unforeseen challenges. They trace the places we have ventured, the choices we have made. And although the rain and wind naturally smooth them away when we’ve long disappeared from the path, the routes we forge inspire others. They chart the unknown. They open new worlds to those that follow.
When I stepped off the airplane into the cool Madrid night, I hadn’t a clue where my path would lead. The miles ahead were hazy, dark, shrouded from sight by the big-city smog. But however threatening the path appeared then, however uncertain I felt, the miles I conquered thereafter were far more rewarding than whatever miles I would’ve repeated at home.
And so I continue forging. I continue chasing profound experiences. Because that’s the impact of study abroad. It instills within you a hunger to uncover new and unseen paths. To chart them for future reference. And to carry those experiences with you as a reminder that you can conquer anything because, after all, you’ve already conquered the world.
Chart your path. Chase adventures. Study abroad.
Nolan M. Kavanagh
University of Michigan
SPANIARDS sneeze into their hands.
Nearly every one, on sensing the forthcoming surge of exhalation and mucus, lifts his hand of choice to his mouth and unapologetically deposits the resulting contents there.
I had viral infections twice this past semester.
A culture’s attitude toward health characterizes many of its values. Americans have the tendency to treat every surface as a petri dish requiring constant disinfection. Television commercials advertise every antibacterial cleaner imaginable, hand sanitizer bottles litter schools and workplaces, and we haggle our medical professionals for antibiotics at every sniffle.
We have a problem.
In Spain, the attitude is more relaxed. They use hand sanitizer infrequently; locating it to purchase can even be challenging. Televisions and homes aren’t subjected to constant antibacterial cleansing. And although I cannot confirm or deny antibiotic abuse, Spaniards don’t petri-dish-ify their world.
But cultural values are rarely isolated to single instances. In the United States, our clinical obsessions manifest themselves in elaborate, expensive healthcare systems and generous public funding for scientific research. Although Spanish healthcare impresses from an egalitarian perspective, it’s nothing special otherwise.
And their research is dismal.
The investigative sciences in Spain enjoyed relatively generous public funding under the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which maintained majority control of the government until 2011. But when the Partido Popular (Popular Party) overtook it, the party of current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy immediately crippled the national research budget.
In 2013, public research funding barely cleared 6 billion euros ($8 billion, at the time), or 0.6 percent of the Spanish GDP. This was Spain’s smallest budget in decades. And half was available as loans, which the scientific community has scathingly criticized. In the same year, the United States made $130 billion available, or 0.8 percent of our GDP. Congress had drastically cut research funding in the same period, from 1.0 percent in 2010.
Even worse, it would seem that the Spanish government barely spent half.
For 2016, the budget won’t surpass 6 billion euros (now, under $7 billion).
This semester, I had the privilege of interning in the dental laboratory of Dr. Mariano Sanz of the Complutense University of Madrid. There, I researched the formation of bacterial biofilms that characterize periodontitis, a common disease of the mouth. Working with the beautiful, odorous bichos three days every week, you could say we became friends.
But beyond laboratory techniques, the experience offered a glimpse into Spanish research culture. The investigative sciences in the Complutense University are parched. Public funding is insufficient and competitive, so laboratories must solicit financing from other sources. The Complutense’s own website recommends international groups, companies, and private organizations. A private company funds Dr. Sanz’s laboratory, at least in part.
When we revisit the numbers, this time including private funding, the disparity actually worsens. The United States pulls ahead to 2.8 percent of its GDP for public and private research spending in 2012, according to World Bank data. Spain sits at 1.3 percent. Among the world’s fifteen largest national economies, plus the European Union’s, this places Spain at twelfth for percentage of GDP, in the company of Italy, Brazil, and Russia. The United States is fourth.
Among the world’s sixteen largest economies, Spain spends a comparatively small portion of its GDP on research. In fact, it lowers the European Union’s average. In this graph, the colors are grouped by continents, and the legend is ordered by percentage of national GDP in 2013 (or the most recent year with available data), highest to lowest. (World Bank)
Within dentistry, Spanish research has narrowed to solely clinical concerns. Dr. Sanz’s laboratory, which conducts basic research, is a bicho raro, or rarity, in dentistry, but even it leans clinical. Meanwhile, American dental research explores more diverse, clinical and basic themes.
The result is predictable. In measuring scientific output, Spain merits mention, but the United States towers as a beacon of leading technologies and breakthroughs, even after accounting for population size. The language of scientific publication has become exclusively English. With few exceptions, nearly all articles of high impact proceed from American or British journals.
This language barrier complicates Spanish research further. At a presentation session to evaluate the progress of the Complutense School of Dentistry’s graduate students, whose presentations were obligatorily in English, I struggled to understand a sizable number. This doesn’t bode well. For the students or for Spain. English has become the scientific standard, for better or worse.
However, Spain’s research has redeeming qualities. Funding often concentrates in grand centers of investigation, like the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas, for general science research, or the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas, for cancer research. These centers often take on clinical, societally applicable projects. And prominent researchers and clinicians have achieved worldwide recognition, like Dr. María Blasco, for her work on aging and cancer, and Dr. Mariano Sanz, for his contributions in periodontics.
Yet, for a world economic leader, Spain’s research lags behind.
What’s the solution? Well, the national government could direct more funding to the investigative sciences, but an effective government shutdown complicates that. (After Spaniards re-vote for Parliament this Sunday, we can re-evaluate.) Schools and universities could enforce stricter English proficiencies, but that, too, would require funding. The current conservative government betrayed its intentions there when it attempted to foot students with a greater share of the university bill. And the economic situation isn’t favorable to corporations and organizations.
But there’s hope.
The centrist political party Ciudadanos has promised to increase research funding to 3 percent of the GDP and encourage more young researchers. They vow to “promote the scientific culture in Spain.” The up-and-coming, leftist party Podemos has made similar promises, plus those to increase public access to scientific knowledge and incentivize the return of scientific talent that has emigrated. Both parties draw strong support from youth, which may indicate a cultural, generational shift. And eventually change.
As such, in the conflict of economic, political, and cultural interests, the resolution may lie in the oft-forgotten third: cultural values. I invite Spaniards to re-evaluate the role of investigative sciences in driving a nation’s economy, public health, and more. Spain has the talent to revolutionize international science. Although they need not adopt the United States’ germophobia as motivation, they might start with baby steps. Like hand sanitizer.
Or, my personal recommendation, by sneezing into the elbow.
Leer en español
This semester, I had a Spanish language class for which we had to research certain aspects of Spanish culture. I researched its humor and wrote this essay for that class. I publish the translation here after some edits.
Humor embodies a culture, reflecting its realities: the daily life, the language, the peculiarities, and the people. While in Spain, I experienced its humor directly in my conversations with others and through the media. Although some humor is universal, some is not. Curiously, Spaniards ridicule their stereotypes considerably, more so than in the United States, where political correctness curtails the humor.
In fact, Spanish stereotypes are strong.
According to my friend from Extremadura, the Andalusian is “someone funny and lazy.” — After saying it, he laughed. — “About the Catalans, it’s said that they’re miserly, and the Basques, perhaps, that they’re a little brutish.” Regarding the Madrileños, the model of my own Spanish development, “I can say one […]. In Extremadura, we say that they’re finolis, which is to say that they speak pronouncing every word correctly.” It could be worse.
A minute passed. “Well, we also say that they’re headstrong.” Alright.
An article published by ABC in 2014 titled, “Why the Madrileños have the reputation of being chulos,” used almost identical phrasing as my friend (“miserly,” “brutish,” and “lazy”). (Possibly because he sent me the article.) It also adds the additional Madrid stereotype of being chulos, or affected in clothing and behavior, because of the characters traditionally played in zarzuelas, or operas.
I wanted to investigate Spanish humor more profoundly. I watched the emblematic movie Eight Basque Surnames, which portrays an unexpected pairing: a Sevillian man and a Basque woman, in the context of the Basque independence movement. After her wedding falls apart, she pretends that the Sevillian is her Basque boyfriend, due to her father’s pressure to marry. The hilarity ensues in their efforts. I also watched this season of Big Brother VIP (the Spanish edition), a reality show in which various celebrities unite in an isolated house to compete for money. The contestants argue and receive “votes” from the public that permit them to remain in the house. The last man (or woman) standing wins.
Eight Basque Surnames directly leverages the Spanish stereotypes as its humor. The plot revolves around the improbable event that an Andalusian and a Basque would marry, given their regions’ differences. The first scene portrays a public argument between the two — with critiques and ridicules of each stereotype. In fact, before we began the movie, the parents of my homestay explained the political and social context of the humor to me, and they proceeded to bellow with laughter during the movie with each example of the stereotypes. They are pure Madrileños. I can’t know that they would react as such if they were Basques or Andalusians. But given the record-breaking popularity of this movie in Spain, the answer is probably yes.
In Big Brother, the stereotypes are subtler. For the most part, the humor arises from fights between the contestants, who suffer the house’s isolation. They argue over trivialities and provoke each other for the entertainment (and to receive votes). But occasionally stereotypes underscore the conflicts. In the final episode, the ex-contestant Alejandro confessed to the finalist Laura, excusing his inappropriate language, “It’s true that I have a big mouth. I apologize for my expressions because I’m from Andalusia, and, well, we Andalusians are not all the same […].” Regardless, my host parents laughed throughout the entire program, whether the jokes were stereotypical or not.
Spanish humor doesn’t rely solely on its stereotypes, but they play a central role. They underlie the very tension of Spanish existence: a nation of nationalist conflict, of regionalist and extremist political parties that would rather dismember it. And what reaction does such threatening tension produce? Humor. The media utilizes the unifying power of movies like Eight Basque Surnames and shows like Big Brother, in which Spaniards that represent the regions in conflict unite. They’re universally popular in the country (that is, popular in all regions). But in both examples, what results? What dominates the humor? The conflicts between the participants.
The Spanish humor that I’ve seen is a nervous one. It attacks the nation’s internal conflicts and ridicules their absurdity, but it does so with caution, conscious of the grave risks and the reality. I could never predict the nation’s future, which has never been predictable, but its humor provides us a clue: The fact that Spaniards can still ridicule each other’s differences suggests that Spanish humor will continue being Spanish humor — that is, of the Spanish nation intact.
Jose Chávez Moreno, a student at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, contributed corrections to this text.
Read in English
Este cuatrimestre, yo tenía una clase de castellano en la que teníamos que investigar ciertos aspectos de la cultura española. Investigué el humor y escribí este ensayo para esa clase. Lo publico aquí con algunos cambios.
El humor representa una cultura, reflejando las realidades de ella: la vida cotidiana, el idioma, las particularidades y la gente. En España, yo experimentaba su humor directamente en mis conversaciones con otros y en los medios de comunicación. Aunque algunos aspectos del mismo son universales, otros no lo son. Lo curioso es que en España se burlan mucho de sus estereotipos, más que en los Estados Unidos, donde la corrección política restringe el humor.
De hecho, los estereotipos españoles son fuertes.
Según mi amigo de Extremadura, el andaluz “es alguien con gracia y vago.” — Después de decírmelo, se rio. — “De los catalanes se dice que son tacaños y de los vascos, quizás, que son un poco brutos.” Respecto a los madrileños, el modelo de mi propio desarrollo español, “puedo decir uno […]. En Extremadura, decimos que son ‘finolis,’ que quiere decir que hablan pronunciando todas las palabras correctamente.” Podría ser peor.
Un minuto transcurrió. “Bueno, también decimos que son gente un poco creída.” Vale.
Un artículo publicado por ABC en 2014 que se titulaba, “Por qué los madrileños tienen fama de ‘chulos,’” incluía casi las mismas palabras (“tacaños,” “brutos” y “vagos”) que usó mi amigo. (Quizás porque él me mandó el artículo.) También añade el estereotipo madrileño adicional de ser “chulo,” o afectado respecto a su indumentaria y comportamiento, a causa de los personajes representados antiguamente en zarzuelas.
Quería investigar el humor español más profundamente. Vi la emblemática película Ocho Apellidos Vascos, que trata de una pareja inesperada: un sevillano y una vasca, en el contexto del movimiento independentista vasco. Después de la cancelación de su matrimonio, ella finge que el sevillano es su novio vasco, debido a la presión de su padre para casarse. La hilaridad surge de sus esfuerzos. También, veía esta temporada de Gran Hermano VIP, un reality show en el que se unen varios famosos en una casa aislada para competir por dinero. Los concursantes discuten y reciben “votos” del público que les permiten quedarse en la casa. El último en la casa gana.
Ocho Apellidos Vascos aprovecha los estereotipos directamente como su humor. El argumento gira en torno al evento improbable de casarse un andaluz y una vasca, dadas las diferencias entre sus regiones. La primera escena es una discusión en público entre ellos — con críticas y bromas de cada estereotipo. De hecho, antes de que empezáramos la película, la señora y el señor de mi casa me explicaron el contexto político y social del humor, y seguían partiéndose durante la película con cada ejemplo de los estereotipos. Son madrileños puros. No sé si reaccionarían igual si fueran vascos o andaluces. Pero dada la popularidad insuperable de la película en España, la respuesta probablemente es sí.
En Gran Hermano, los estereotipos son más sutiles. Por mayor parte, el humor surge de las peleas entre los concursantes, quienes sufren el aislamiento de la casa. Discuten temas triviales y provocan a los otros por entretenimiento (y para recibir votos). Pero a veces los estereotipos subyacen los conflictos. En el programa final, el ex-concursante Alejandro le dijo a la finalista Laura, excusando su mal lenguaje, “Es verdad que tengo muy mala boca. [...] Te pido disculpas por mis expresiones porque yo soy de Andalucía, y, bueno, no todos los andaluces somos iguales [...].” Sin embargo, mis señores se reían durante todo el programa; no les importaban que los chistes surgieran de los estereotipos o no.
El humor español no depende únicamente de los estereotipos, pero tienen un papel clave. Subyacen la tensión de la existencia española: un país de conflicto nacionalista, de partidos políticos regionalistas y extremistas que quieren desensamblarlo. ¿Qué reacción se produce frente a una tensión tan amenazadora? El humor. Los medios de comunicación hacen uso del poder unificador de las películas como Ocho Apellidos Vascos o de los programas como Gran Hermano, en los que se unen españoles representativos de las regiones en conflicto. Son universalmente populares en el país (es decir, populares en todas partes). Pero en ambos ejemplos, ¿qué resulta?, ¿qué domina en el humor? Los conflictos entre los participantes.
El humor español que he visto es un humor nervioso. Ataca los conflictos internos y se burla del absurdo de ellos, pero lo hace con cuidado, consciente de los riesgos graves y de la realidad. Yo nunca podría predecir el futuro del país, el cual nunca se ha podido predecir, pero el humor nos provee una sugerencia: que los españoles todavía puedan burlarse de sus diferencias sugiere que el humor español seguirá siendo el humor español — es decir, del país español intacto.
Jose Chávez Moreno, un estudiante de la Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, contribuyó con correcciones a este texto.
The Western world is currently surging with the latest wave of a recurrent political force: populism. In the United States, anti-establishment figures have overrun this year’s presidential primaries: Bernie Sanders among liberals, and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz among conservatives. American populism isn’t new. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign electrified scores of new voters, independents, and estranged Democrats. He ran on the grass-roots slogan “Yes, we can” (and its Spanish equivalent, “Sí, se puede”).
Spain, and Europe in general, is experiencing the same flavor of movements.
Since the re-institution of Spanish democracy — which is still a baby, with only forty years of recent democratic participation under its belt — Spain has had a two-party system, like the United States. Local and national elections have been dominated by the Partido Popular (Popular Party, abbreviated PP) and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or PSOE). They represent the right and left, respectively.
Don’t be mistaken: The two are not synonymous with Republicans and Democrats. Both parties support the welfare system, a facet of Spanish life since Dictator Francisco Franco. The PSOE founded itself on marxist values, although it dropped them thirty years ago and has since drifted toward neoliberalism, or freer markets. (That said, compared to Mr. Franco’s nationalization of utilities, transportation, communications, and more, anything appears neoliberal in comparison.) The PP, on the other hand, promotes economic freedom in a more serious way. The PSOE defends gay marriage and abortion, while the PP defends Catholic, “family” values.
The two parties also espouse vastly different models for the Spanish state — and the differences are not interpretational like American states’ rights but, rather, distinct constitutional models. The PP would rather maintain the current monarchy and “autonomous communities,” a system that explicitly favors centralized power, while the PSOE would prefer an asymmetric federal system that returns taxing, among other privileges, to the autonomies.
This particular ideological difference represents the mosaic Spanish identity. Not only does the constitution preferentially favor “historical nationalities,” Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia, which joined the Spanish state by distinct paths from the autonomies and, therefore, receive extended legal and self-governing privileges. But nationalism in those regions currently strains their relationship with the central government even further. In fact, the Basque and Catalonian nationalist movements, whose political parties won a majority in recent municipal elections, seek to separate their regions from Spain entirely.
This is where the politics becomes messy.
The PP and PSOE have decisively sided against dissolving the Spanish state. Both refuse to grant referendums of self-determination to the autonomies. Bipartisanship is heartwarming, no? Well, incidentally, that act of bipartisanship broke Spanish bipartisanism itself, because in the 2015 national elections, neither party received a majority of the vote, thanks to two insurgent parties.
One of the insurgents represents a coalition of regionalist, nationalist parties whose uniting agenda item is referendums: Podemos. It emerged from the Movimiento 15-M, the Spanish equivalent of Occupy Wall Street, which protested the well-known corruption of the two dominant parties. In 2011, the movement occupied Madrid’s central plaza, Puerta del Sol, for days and chanted “PSOE, PP, la misma m***** es” (“PSOE, PP, it’s the same s***”).
(Yes, I failed to mention the corruption. In 2014, the two parties nearly signed an anti-corruption pact. It fell apart days later amidst more scandals in the PP.)
Just five years earlier, in 2006, the other insurgent party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), grew out of the same grievances, launching to national prominence when one of its campaign ads featured leader Albert Rivera naked, a nod to his innocence.
Podemos, however, represents more than nationalism and anti-corruption. It’s anti-establishment. It’s extreme left. And it’s unmistakably populist. In its platform for the 2015 national elections, Podemos promised an increased minimum wage, universal basic income, 35-hour workweeks, expanded taxes and social security contributions for the wealthy, a restructuring (or rejecting) of the national debt, public investment in green energy, lower student-to-teacher ratios, and nearly four hundred more promises. Seriously, four hundred. (Well, to be fair, 394 in total.)
And it paid off.
Podemos received over five million votes, or 20,7%. (Voter turnout was three-fourths, compared to the American half in 2012.) Consequently, in the current Parliament, Podemos holds 69 of 350 seats, giving them the third highest representation after the PP (123) and PSOE (90), in front of Ciudadanos (40) and a slew of other regionalist and nationalist parties. It drew considerable support from young voters and the “historical nationalities” that would benefit from self-determination.
The people spoke. And now Podemos is in the prime position.
See, the Spanish government itself presents a hurdle: The Parliament elects the prime minister; in order to elect a prime minister and, therefore, have a functioning government, one party or a coalition of parties must hold a majority in the Parliament. At the moment, no party does. And nobody is willing to go into cahoots with Podemos, either. The PP and PSOE have already rejected its uniting goal, and no other party has the seats to form a majority coalition.
What does this mean? Well, first, since the elections in December, Spain has effectively been without government. The national government remains at a standstill until a majority vote in the Parliament chooses a prime minister. Although the previous prime minister, Mariano Rajoy of the PP, remains provisionally in charge, no bills nor policy revisions nor other parliamentary actions can be considered until the outstanding matter is resolved. Podemos can affect no change. And it’s not poised to receive the support to do so.
Second, a provision in the Spanish constitution addresses exactly this situation: After so many failed attempts at a coalition government, the Spanish populace must re-vote. That’s right, new national elections, this time in June. But here’s where Podemos especially loses out: As with most populist surges, its popularity is fleeting, and according to polls as early as February, it’s slated to lose seats. Yes, we can?
What the future holds for Podemos and the Spanish government is, for everyone, a veritable mystery. But the display of populism hits remarkably close to home. In the topsy-turvy American political scene, we, too, have experienced the perfect storms of populism — Barack Obama in 2008, “Yes, we can” — as well as the fizzling attempts — Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (we’ll see about that last one).
Maybe the lesson is one in establishment politics, in constantly re-aligning politicians with voters. Maybe it’s one in bipartisan politics, in needing to reform the two-party system. Or maybe it’s one in the fickle wants of voters. Who knows? But when the people say something so powerful, to ignore it would be awful unwise.
Late Friday night, I caught the last train on the metro and snuck inside the apartment. It was silent; my host parents and John were sleeping. I creaked open my bedroom door and muffled its closing behind me, masterfully maneuvering the loud brass handle and flicking on a light in the same motion. It’s a talent. I often arrive home before John, who self-preserves much better than I do —it’s given me practice, although I would do much better to follow his example. Then I paused. This time I lingered. I sighed.
John would board a plane in a few hours.
Our program ended Friday.
Even though I still have three weeks in Madrid, most of my friends were leaving that next day. We celebrated our final night together. We started at San Ildefonso, an indoor market with a dozen food stands: Mexican and traditional Spanish and bars of every variety. We bought nachos. Twice. But like true Spaniards, many of us drank tinto de verano, a refreshing mix of red wine and lemon Fanta that’s become my drink of choice. This particular bar mixed in cinnamon and rum. Yum.
We reminisced. Laughed. Clinked together tintos de verano.
Then coming full circle, we moved to El Tigre, the first bar of the semester and a frequent throughout. That’s when the goodbyes began. Beyond that point, the night becomes an emotional blur. I remember hugging Mackenzie on the train, when three Spanish girls disrupted it by barreling into an already crowded car. I don’t blame them; it was the last train of the night. Mackenzie and I awkwardly separated and looked at each other. An interrupted hug. Something about it felt right.
Then the doors reopened, I stepped off, and that was all she wrote.
This semester has been an interrupted hug.
We all met that first week, nervously chatting at El Tigre and exchanging WhatsApp numbers and betting on Hillary Clinton because this was January, mind you, when Trump’s candidacy still had a comic allure. We attended bars in mobs because everyone feared the Madrid night alone, and we partied inside a seven-story club, shuffled between tourist sites, bumbled through orientation, and, somewhere along the way, became friends.
We bonded in class. We shared notes because, occasionally, we’d miss a word and misunderstand everything. We jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, hands held in solidarity, and collectively interpreted menu items and locals’ pronunciation.
We toured Spain together: boarded airplanes, battled motion sickness, argued over boarding order (I maintain that airplanes board front-to-back according to ticket price). We ordered Domino’s Pizza in Bilboa because we’d suffered through three hours of torrential downpour, and we feasted on a picnic against the gates of Aranjuez’s central park because they apparently don’t allow food inside. And occasionally we aspired for more culturally appropriate activities, like museums, local dishes, and cathedral visits (I was insistent on those).
And now most of you are in the United States.
Our hugs ended too soon.
When we reflect on our study abroad experience ten years from now, or twenty, we won’t remember the details —the history of Franco’s dictatorship, nor the elongated figures of El Greco, nor many of our memories together. But what will remain is the feeling of warmth, the shared emotion, and the mutual gratitude for enriching each other’s experiences.
We will remember that, for four months, we stumbled into each other’s lives. And in that short period of time, immersed in such an overwhelming experience, we connected.
And far into the future, regardless of where time takes us, our friendships shall remain immortalized in the city itself: every giggle, every discovery, every homesick tear, endlessly playing out like a movie theater projection on the streets where they happened. Because we all leave something of ourselves in Madrid. And although we will never recreate this experience, never again be the individuals nor group that we were, there we shall be together, at El Tigre, drinking tinto de verano and laughing forever.
Two weeks ago, student groups in Madrid and across Spain organized protests in response to the government’s new education reforms. These reforms include the “3 Más 2” initiative, which aims to redivide the typical university degree structure into a three-year bachelor’s and two-year master’s. Currently, the system is “4 Más 1,” and some years ago, there were simply five years for all specialties, without the expectation of an advanced degree.
If you’re like me, the change seems insignificant. As it is, those students that pursue a second degree usually do so in the same university, and if not, they can pick up where they left off almost anywhere else, thanks to an interchangeable European university system.
But it all hinges here: the price. Many students cannot afford the more expensive “3 Más 2,” since master’s classes cost more than bachelor’s. What’s the difference, you ask? Brace yourselves, Americans. For a public university in Spain, a year of undergraduate education costs 1,000€ ($1,100), while a year of graduate school costs under 4,000€ ($4,500). That’s right. With the new initiative, the difference is less than 3,000€. And two degrees is roughly 10,000€ in either system.
If you’re shocked, join the party. I pay in-state tuition at the University of Michigan, which, within the context of American higher education, is a steal. Compared to Spanish higher education, though, for an equivalent undergraduate degree, Michigan is an order of magnitude more expensive. Ten times. Out-of-state and private school tuitions border on twenty.
The proposed changes affect only Spain’s public universities, which are generally more prestigious than private ones. Public universities require high entrance exam scores, and they hold professors to higher standards. If you don’t make the cut, you go private. Additionally, college admissions aren’t the “game” in Spain that they are in the States; your entrance exam is the largest (or only) determinant. In fact, the population of the public Complutense University of Madrid, where I study, fluctuates year-to-year according to application volume.
By the way, the Complutense has 90,000 students. Ninety thousand. Let that sink in. The University of Michigan is large in American higher education, both in population and land mass, but it has nothing on this school. Michigan is its half. Yet despite its size, the Complutense does not have a defined “culture” like American universities, whose football teams, school spirit, and on-campus living communities cultivate an isolated world. Instead, Complutense students share flats wherever they affordably find them in the city or suburbs and commute to school. Spanish universities do not organize varsity sports conferences. Students do not share fierce patriotism.
And aesthetically, despite the unsightliness of certain Michigan buildings, the University of Michigan again has nothing on the Complutense, whose buildings are archaic (some, seventy years old), in disrepair, and plastered with graffiti. For decades, rebellious and anarchic student groups have tagged its facilities with anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-whatever-they-fancy messages, and university maintenance has stopped washing them. They have neither the funding nor the perseverance to combat the perennial.
This brings us back to the key issue: money. The public university system in Spain is government-funded, which is to say, taxes-funded. (By the way, the effective tax-rate in Spain maxes out at sixty percent, compared to the American forty percent. Twenty percent goes a long way: subsidized higher education, universal healthcare, and expanded public welfare.) But without delving into Spain’s political system, the current conservative government would rather shift the financial burden on those that actually seek higher education: the students. Incidentally, the Complutense has historically sided with the more liberal socialist party. Go figure.
The hitch in the initiative, of course, is that students can’t afford anything. It’s a universal truth, but it especially resonates here. Spanish students do not work. Or more accurately, they cannot work. Sidestepping a discussion of the messy Spanish economy, the unemployment rate is nearly one third, weighted heavily among the young, for whom the rate is fifty. Jobs do not exist for students. Or anyone, really. And if you wait tables, the minimum wage in Spain is half the American’s (yes, that’s right —about 4€ per hour).
It gets worse. Spanish parents do not have the tradition of saving college funds, the government does not offer educational loans, and scholarships are rare. Even for doctorate students, Spanish universities do not necessarily subsidize their PhDs like American ones; some students therefore work alongside research.
Consequently, asking students to subsidize an additional 3,000€ for their own educations is significant. Especially because those educations do not guarantee employment (far from it), and because assistance is virtually non-existent. Even though I envy these students, for my education costs (my parents) a fortune, empathy comes easy too. I identify with their struggle. We all share the same goal: to better ourselves with education, to pursue a brighter future. I treasure my education. And it’s enraging that political and economic circumstances beyond Spanish students’ control are threatening their access to it.
Readers, I have failed you.
I have spent three months in Spain and haven’t dedicated a post to croquetas yet. It’s a disservice to you. And to the croquetas.
As my friends and family and anyone that’s accompanied me to an eating establishment (or anywhere with Oreos) know, I love food. And that I tend to eat irresponsibly. Last semester, I frequented Wendy’s thrice weekly, minimum, and I wasn’t buying salads either. I once ordered a barbecue chicken salad and, bewilderingly, received a carton of lettuce doused in barbecue sauce. It felt wrong. But I don’t eat enough salads to be sure.
Old habits die hard. Here in Spain, there are these candies with red, gummy exteriors and sweet, white filling. They taste vaguely like strawberry (“strawberry”). Really, they’re just molded sugar, and I don’t even know their name. But I’m obsessed. Mondays and Wednesdays, when I walk home from the Prado Museum, and some Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, returning from the Complutense, I buy a bagful of them.
Now, I frequently exaggerate on this blog, but this is sincere: I am addicted.
You can buy them in any of the ubiquitous convenience stores: On every street corner, there’s a store run by Chinese immigrants. Spaniards call them “chinos” (“Chineses”). The more politically correct name is “alimentación,” or food store, but political correctness doesn’t bog down Spaniards. In any case, they make the candies dangerously accessible.
If they’re available in the States, I’ve never seen them. And that makes me nervous. So please, if you find a bulk, wholesale retailer, inform me at your earliest convenience. Direct your correspondence by text, call, email, or carrier pigeon. Thank you. —No. No, hold on, Nolan, you can’t do this to yourself. Let’s try this again. Readers, please, if you care at all about my well-being, I beg you: Ensure I never learn of them. I say this now, in my transiently lucid state. Take heed. Before I change my mind.
But beyond gummies, I have a greater Spanish culinary obsession: croquetas.
Croquetas are the Spanish answer to fried pockets of meat, a staple in every culture: the pierogi, the ravioli, the McDonald’s chicken nugget. Spaniards have many varieties. The typical Madrid croqueta is a creamy bechamel sauce and bits of ham, rolled into a ball, breaded, and fried. (That’s right. My favorite Spanish food is fried. I’m American. Sue me. Litigation —also American.) Each region has its favorite, like mussel or cod croquetas in Granada, Sevilla, and the coasts, but from what I can tell, the most popular is ham. Spaniards worship ham.
Every bar, restaurant, and household serves croquetas. Their presentation is disillusive: a plate that’s nearly empty, save four or six croquetas that occupy a skimpy third of it. Maybe some lettuce shreds as a garnish (a “salad,” if I am to understand salads). But you cut into their crispy coating to release an intoxicating steam that delivers you to heaven. The filing is creamy and salty, contrasting the exterior, satisfying, filling, an ambrosia of fried potatoes. They warm your insides and caress your soul and remind you that life is for the living.
But here’s the thing.
I love croquetas, so much that it would be easy to reduce Spanish cuisine to just them. In reality, there’s so much more. I recently attended a cooking class where we learned paella, Spanish tortilla, and tarta de Santiago. All hallmarks of Spanish cuisine: paella is emblematic, tortilla inescapable. My host mother regularly cooks lomo de pollo or cerdo, or filets of chicken or pork —typical. And during Semana Santa in Sevilla, I ate torrijas every day, a traditional Easter dessert that resembles french toast soaked in honey.
Spanish cuisine is distinct. It is mature. Spaniards consume far fewer “ethnic” foods than Americans because their native cuisine is satisfyingly diverse, more so than ours —and healthier, too. But when I started this post, intent on exploring Spain’s hallmark dishes, I wrote for however long and reviewed what I’d done and wait, gummies and croquetas?
This is a challenge of studying abroad: cultural caricatures. I have only five months in Madrid, barely enough to internalize the basics. Spain has a diverse, thousands-year past, and their cuisine reflects it: Muslim occupation, spice wars, American colonization, intercontinental commerce, a geography and climate that’ve marked it since first human settlement. I can’t appreciate this in five months. Instead, I develop a fragmented perspective that reduces the complexity, distorts it, renders only the most impressionable experiences. For me, culinarily, those are apparently gummies and croquetas.
I fight the reduction. I force myself outside the comfort zone. I taste adventurously and take recommendations and eat everything my host family offers. After all, I am in Spain to experience Spain. But there’s an internal conflict: the desire to diversify (or the fear of not experiencing the fullest), which drives exploration, that clashes with the reaction against discomfort, which encourages routines and reversion to American habits. All compounded by limited time.
Try as I might to “become” Spanish, I won’t. I can’t. In fact, my one study abroad goal had been for locals to mistake me as Spanish. Just once. I put that goal on paper. To my dismay, though, it hasn’t happened yet, and I no longer expect it either. In this case, there are other confounding variables, like my decidedly un-Spanish appearance and sloppy American-and-Latino accent. But there’s also the obvious limitation that, within five months, I couldn’t possibly absorb enough of the Spanish “being” to fluidly imitate natives.
As a result, I remain trapped in cultural caricatures, which portray Spanish culture with an emphasis on novel experiences and which disregard (or, more exactly, remain ignorant of) sizable swaths of the culinary and political and cultural complexity. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating what I can; any effort is commendable. But it disillusions me that my first thoughts on Spanish cuisine were gummy candies and croquetas, because there exists so much more.
Correction: May 29, 2016
A post in April about cultural caricatures and Spanish cuisine misidentified the ingredientes of croquetas as potatoes, cheese, and ham (among other varieties). The ingredients are bechamel sauce and ham.
The city of lights, the city of love. For the first half of Semana Santa, I vacationed in Paris, the political and cultural center of Western European history. From its philosophical developments that defined the Enlightenment to its artistic and literary icons, from its Revolutions and Imperialisms that redefined modern Europe to its present reputation as romantic paradise, Paris was my quintessential European visit.
Thus, emerging from the metro stop at Notre Dame, I envisioned cultural luminescence and mimes in the streets and that musical language with accordion accompaniment, because for whatever reason American movies all depict Paris to accordion accompaniment, and I climbed the last step with anxious anticipation to the wondrous sight —of grey. All grey. Grey buildings, grey skies, grey concrete streets. Cigarette butts littering the sidewalks, tossed by Parisians huffing billowing grey clouds. A hazy smog from diesel engines blanketed the city, such that the illuminated nighttime Eiffel Tower shone against it like a spotlight.
The city of lights, the city of love, the city of dirty grey.
I met an old friend studying in France —naturally, my tour guide and translator. His task: embodying Parisian culture. But to his chagrin, every waiter and shop owner would begin their conversation in French, hear his accent, and switch to English. They rejected his foreignness. I empathize; when Spaniards do it with me, I become irrationally insulted: “How dare you?! Don’t make my life easier!” My friend even asked one waitress to address him in French and me in English. Given that my French is a mispronounced “bonjour,” I happily accepted.
We swept the city, enjoying tourist sites and charming cafes. However, as a Catholic on Semana Santa, whose high school European history teacher had lauded Gothic architecture, I had one main request: churches. Churches, churches, the Louvre, and churches. In particular, Gothic ones. In my opinion, Gothic architecture is the embodiment of stereotypical Catholicism: grandeur, power, gargoyles to instill fear and guilt, thirteenth century masterpieces now crumbling like the Church’s influence.
Breathe in the dust of cathedral ruins —ah, yes, the smell of Catholicism.
We waited two hours to walk Notre Dame’s tower, the crowning glory of Gothic cathedrals, and thirty minutes for St. Chapelle. I was determined. After my friend returned home, I even ventured out to St. Denis, Europe’s first Gothic church, alone. Which was hard. Fifteen euros in wasted metro passes and three subway changes later, I finally divined the route to it: incidentally, it’s outside the city. And then, arriving in Paris’ outskirts with little sunlight left, I detrained into a swarm of four dozen peddlers. I then realized that St. Denis was a disadvantaged migrant town. And I was the only white boy in sight.
“You’re fine, Nolan,” I said, drawing my sleeve over my Apple Watch. “Don’t worry. You’re safe. I’m sure. Sure, sure.” Every conversation sounded like the plot to kidnap me —I couldn’t know; I don’t speak French. But I was determined. I donned a poker face, power walked to the church, snapped a selfie, then power walked straight back.
I trembled inside the train. Heaved from relief. But here I am, alive to tell the tale.
My more harrowing experience in Paris, however, came later that night: ordering pizza. Without my translating friend and now hobbling on one foot, injured from power walking, I opted for an easy night in. And by easy, I mean American: Domino’s Pizza, ordered online with Google translate, delivered to the apartment. But it didn’t occur to me until late in the ordering process that I had no French phone nor, of course, any means of bartering with the delivery man once he arrived.
As a result, I spent twenty minutes fidgeting in my seat, next to the door, flinching at every sound on the staircase. Hiding like a fugitive. And jumping out of my skin when the delivery man rang, I apparently decided that speaking in Spanish —in a city of French and English— was definitely the best option. I mimed a credit card, which was promptly denied, then danced around the apartment until pirouetting before him with a twenty euro note.
I had ordered the wrong pizza. I frowned. I watched The Dark Knight and ate it anyway.
Little by little, though, Paris grew on me. The Eiffel Tower at night was breathtaking, although Parisians jogged around it —and around me, the tourist— with haughty indifference. The Louvre and Musée d’Orsay inspired awe, drawing me through four hundred years of French artistry like Delacroix and Van Gogh and entrancing me in a timelessness that only broke when Louvre staffers ousted me at closing. And in my last hour in Paris, as I crossed a bridge with love locks, the ones that couples plant to represent their everlasting passion, I caught a glimpse of that cinematic Paris: contented couples walking the turquoise Seine, street artists selling colorful Van Gogh recreations, a shimmering sunset basking the Louvre in gold —all until my free time expired and a grey subway car whisked me away.
In my head, I had imagined a Disney-esque, romantic Paris, with accordion players on every street corner (I saw one), berets and black-and-white pinstriped sweaters, attractive couples holding hands and kissing on the riverside. Instead, I encountered a much starker Paris, heavy with its prideful history and exasperated by its tourism. Where foreigners were, Parisians weren’t. Besides tourist locales that made tired efforts at the illusion, Parisians rejected whatever image their visitors imposed on them. They did so emphatically. They chastised foreigners that marred their language; they smugly overlooked gawkers that doubted their cultural genius.
This is Paris: The city of grey, the city of pride. A city whose inhabitants have deposed a half dozen governments in violent revolutions, whose literary and political prowess has disregarded expectations, sparked cultural revolutions, and commanded Western thought. The spirit lives on. Paris doesn’t care. This isn’t Disney’s Paris. It doesn’t belong to fairytales. It’s bloody. It’s dirty. And its dirtiness makes it Paris: trailblazing into the abyss, into the cultural and political jungle, returning with dirty shoes to prove it.
I like health care and politics. I sometimes write about them.
For the posts from my study abroad adventure in Madrid, Spain, click here.