Cultural Experience | Spain

A Study Abroad Interview From An (Almost) Local Toledo Girl

Studying abroad in Toledo, Spain gave Katie a second family and a second city to call her own.

I remember when my friend Katie got accepted into her study abroad program to live in Toledo, Spain for a semester. I was currently on my own abroad program in England, and she was Skyping me from her dorm room in Indiana when she got the email. “Steph,” she said to me, and there were happy tears in her eyes, “I can’t believe it, I’m actually going back to Spain!”

You wouldn’t have to know Katie for years like I have to realize just how much she loves Spanish culture. She is in love with the language, the people, the food, and majors in Spanish at the University of Notre Dame. In high school she participated in an exchange program and stayed with a Spanish family for two weeks. Since then, she has been longing to get back. Finally, this past spring, she did! I asked Katie if I could ask her some questions about Spain, and like any student who enjoyed their time abroad, she was eager to share her experiences.

Where did you live abroad, what were your living arrangements and how did you travel around your city?

I lived in the old city of Toledo, which is very small. I stayed with a host family at my university – a single mother and two young kids – and they were definitely the best part of my study abroad experience. I was about a fifteen minute walk from the university, but if I was running late there was also a bus that could take me down the one main road of the old city. The city is so tiny that busses don’t go everywhere, only residents are allowed to drive on the one way cobblestone streets. I got around mostly by walking.

How did you embrace the culture of Toledo?

Living with a Spanish family definitely helped me to embrace the culture. It helped me practice my language because my family couldn’t speak any English. They introduced me to new people in the community, I would attend masses at different churches and they would bring me to different bars and restaurants that weren’t on the main tourist drag. They helped me a lot with the local food, too; my mom taught me how to cook. Some of my friends lived in a dorm and they didn’t get the same experience that I did. Any questions I had about Spanish life, Spanish politics, I could go and talk to my family about at dinner, and that was really what made my experience so special.

Did you have a favorite spot in your city?

There was this one spot called La Piedra- it’s just this big rock, but it has the most beautiful views of the entire city. There were old ruins overlooking the river and I would go there and read sometimes. Also my house was right by a park so I would go and chill there under the trees, play with the little school kids. There was also this cool bar that my mom showed me where they played rock music and there was also a traveling library in it.  There was a space you could sit at the bar and be social, but you could also just go and sit and read something, or get a cup of coffee and get work done.

What was the most amazing experience you had?

Going to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It was a place that I had dreamed of ever since I was a little kid. It’s one of those places where you turn the corner and it’s just there and overwhelming and beautiful. It’s massive and just a testament to what people can do. It’s taken over 250 years to build, and the fact that the architect and the people that started building it aren’t going to be alive when it’s finished is ridiculous. When you walk inside it feels like you’re in a different world, there’s sunlight shining down from the ceiling and everything is so vivid. Gaudi said he wanted it to be like a “forest of light.”

Stephanie DiCarlo Study Abroad Interview Sagrada Familia image

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

Another special part of my time abroad was walking around Toledo with my family. When the lights go out it feels like you’re in a different century, like it’s almost haunted because it’s so old. My mom would take me down these random streets and she’d tell me old stories about emperors and such, like ghost stories. It was a cool way to learn about the place that I was in and to get to see a different side of it that a lot of people don’t get a chance to see.

How has studying abroad impacted your personal growth?

It’s such a cliché, but it opened my mind so much, to see how other people live and how other families live. And it’s little things like whether or not to put your hands on the table and different concepts of personal space, but it’s also the bigger ideological differences. For example, you don’t realize that not everyone is like you, and it’s so refreshing to meet other people and see how they live and see the world through their eyes. Also, the food  was life-changing.

What were some of your favorite places or things to do in Spain?

Alhambra: It’s a Moorish castle in the city of Granada that was overtaken by Christians. You have to pay to go in and you should most definitely get a guided tour because you’ll learn so much about the history and that region of Spain. The architecture is amazing and the gardens are incredible. It’s very beautiful and very impressive

La Sagrada Familia: In addition to what I said before, you do have to pay to get in, and there’s a student discount, but you should buy your tickets online in advance because there’s always a huge line, and if you wait in the line there might be a possibility that the tickets to climb the tower are sold out for the day.

Toledo: When you go to this city you feel like you’re stepping into a different world. It’s a half hour from Madrid but it feels like it’s centuries away. There’s no way you could see everything that it has to offer in one day. There’s so much history, there’s so much culture, and it’s a great walking city. Get lost on purpose and just kind of wander around. Also, it’s really culturally significant because it was the religious capital of Spain for centuries.

Las Fallas: it’s a big festival in the spring in the city of Valencia. Each neighborhood spends the entire year making these beautiful elaborate statues and they can be celebrating all different themes- jazz music, story books, China- anything. At the end of Las Fallas there’s a contest for which statue is best, and the one that wins gets put in a museum and all the other statues are burned. In the days leading up to Las Fallas there are light shows, sound shows, fireworks, parades, street vendors, music. It’s loud, it’s crazy, and there are just so many people who are there to have a good time. You’ll meet people from all over Spain, all over the world. The streets are just one big party at night. So if you like to party, that’s the weekend to do it.

Madrid: Just the city in general. It’s very cosmopolitan, a city of the world. Feels very modern but very Spanish. Good for a sports person, you can go and see the football stadiums. I’d go back to all of these places in a heartbeat.

Any advice or tips you’d give to someone before going abroad?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Take chances, talk to strangers, try new foods, try new experiences. If someone invites you out someplace, go, because it’s a once in a lifetime chance. I would say budget your money wisely, make sure you have enough for the essentials, but don’t be so tight with your money that you miss out on things. This is the time to do it. It’s so worth it to get on these experiences. Don’t stay in what’s comfortable, make yourself uncomfortable.

I think everyone should study abroad and go to a different culture. You realize how big the world is. You realize how your way of doing things isn’t the right way, it’s just the way you’ve been raised to do it. It helps you see the water you’re swimming in. And everyone should stay with a host family- I have two families now.

Stephanie DiCarlo

University of Massachusetts Amherst | 9 stories

My name is Steph and I'm a recent grad of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I traveled to Leeds, England to study abroad during the spring semester of my junior year of college! I love to travel, love to photograph, love to eat, and love to write!

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