Cultural Experience | Spain

#LivingLikeALocal: Just a Surrey Girl in Spain.

“The difficulties I encountered were to do with not having any Marmite, tea bags or Quavers”

By Lizi Woolgar, University of Bristol

Ibiza (ESN trip)

Ibiza (ESN trip)

I caught up with my second year Bristol housemate Katie Macadam – initially from Surrey – to see how she faired on her year abroad.

1.      Where did you go & how long for?

Zaragoza, Spain – 5 months

Coimbra, Portugal – 5 months

2.       What did you study?

In both countries I belonged to the same faculty as I do in Bristol (Faculty of the Arts) so I was given the freedom to choose from any subject within this faculty (e.g. History, Spanish Language, Classics, History of Art, etc.) and arrange my timetable by myself accordingly. Also, the subjects you choose have to account for 30 ECTs (credits) in each place, so in Portugal I had 6 subjects (worth 24 hours of teaching per week!!! yeah I died…) and then in Spain I only had 5 subjects (worth only 15 hours of teaching per week) – in both countries I had more teaching hours than I do in Bristol but less work to do at home so it worked out pretty much the same.

So in Portugal I studied a mixture of Linguistics and Portuguese Language courses as well as some Classics modules because I’ve always loved the ancient Romans!

As for Spain, the choice was more limited so I chose a few history modules (Spanish history as well as international history, i.e. ‘Social  Movements between the 19th-21st centuries’) and a literature module but I never went to lectures so I can’t tell you much about these classes ha! We don’t have to pass our exams at foreign Unis for Bristol so I had little-to-no motivation to go to class, even less so for the exams – and anyway, I had much more important things to do with my time! Hahaha.

study abroad zaragoza image

“In my first week in Zaragoza this was a Tapas Bar Crawl we did with the ESN Organisation through El Tubo (this is only half the group as well)!”

3.       What unexpected difficulties did you face?

I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been on a gap year before uni realises how hard living in foreign lands for a year will be; I certainly didn’t. Facebook is a double-edged sword because it lets you keep in touch with everyone at home but you also then see all the fun your closest friends are having at home while you’re sat in 30-degree heat struggling to converse with an Italian in Portuguese (a language you’ve only been studying for 2 years). All the things I thought would be difficult before I left (like finding somewhere to live, making friends, finding my way around the University/city, etc.) were actually the easiest; the difficulties I encountered were to do with not having any Marmite, tea bags or Quavers (I reeeeally missed English food, can you tell?!) and as I’ve explained the serious FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). One final thing (because it’s not really a difficulty, it just encouraged my incredible capacity for laziness) is that EVERYWHERE I’ve been this year someone will speak English – and not just pigeon English, fully structured and full of sense sentences – so I often slipped back into English just out of comfort more than anything.

La Basilica del Pilar in Zaragosa, Spain student travel image

La Basilica del Pilar in Zaragosa, Spain

4.       What was the most surprising cultural difference or similarity?

THE FOOD. In Spain it wasn’t too bad, but where I lived in Portugal ALL THEY ATE WAS PORK AND RICE. I don’t eat pork. Oh and salted cod, which they call bacalão, it’s a delicacy and it’s gross. But then on the flipside the Portuguese make great pastries and sweet things, and in Spain I couldn’t get enough of the tapas, paella and fresh fruit.

In terms of similarities, it would have to be the general popular culture – things like finding out your Italian housemate also watches Game of Thrones or that the Spanish guy you’re seeing would LOVE to watch Pineapple Express with you because it’s his fave film too. I just hadn’t realised that Spanish/Portuguese kids would be into the same TV programmes, films, actors, music artists, etc. as me, and I was pleasantly surprised!

5.       What advice would you give to yourself a year ago, in preparation for this year?

“Don’t stress princess, just go for it and see what happens” – I held back way too often this year when I should have just gone for it.

"Sitting in the Praça de República in Coimbra, Portugal listening to my mates jamming in the evening sun – perfect!"

“Sitting in the Praça de República in Coimbra, Portugal listening to my mates jamming in the evening sun – perfect!”

6.       How did you reflect on your study abroad experience once you returned home?

To put it simply, Portugal was a learning curve (learning to deal with homesickness and the culture shock) and Spain was when I really started having fun. I’ve had some great experiences this year (namely going to Ibiza for a week for only €350!). I also learnt a lot, not only about the places I’ve been but also about myself – it made me grow up a fair bit! I definitely could have worked harder on improving the quality of my language in both countries but errr… the booze was too cheap!

7.       3 top tips of things to experience if you visit this location?

Coimbra, Portugal:

  1. Go to visit the university, it’s one of the oldest in Europe (12th century I think) and very beautiful.
  2. Experience Queima das Fitas, a week-long festival at the end of the second semester with music and way too much cheap alcohol.
  3. Go to a fado bar. Fado is a typical kind of Portuguese music. Personally, not for me, but everyone should go and listen live at least once if they live there.

 Zaragoza, Spain:

  1. Go to Parque Grande on a hot sunny day to sunbathe, splash in the fountains and watch the pretty boys go jogging.
  2. Go for a day out at Puerto Venecia shopping centre – it’s half an hour from the centre of town because it’s HUGE. There are as many restaurants as shops, and there’s even a little lake in the middle of it where you can hire a row-boat.
  3. Do a tapas bar crawl through El Tubo (streets in the old part of the city lined with tapas bars) because it’s cheap, you get a good meal and it’s a fun way to get to know your way around.
The Royal Palace in Madrid study abroad image

The Royal Palace in Madrid

 8.       Any other comments?

I don’t know which other countries they do this in, but in both Portugal and Spain, there’s an organisation called ESN (Erasmus Student Network). Where I was in Portugal they were pretty useless, but in Spain my whole social life was organised by this team of Spanish students whose sole job it is to get you drunk and make you friends. It’s like a permanent Freshers’ Week to these people!


In Ibiza (a trip organised by ESN España) with 2,000 other Erasmus students from all over Spain.

In Ibiza (a trip organised by ESN España) with 2,000 other Erasmus students from all over Spain.


Lizi Woolgar

University of Bristol | 40 stories

Graduate of University of Bristol. Having spent my first two years of University writing for the student newspaper, epigram and Brighton-based Spindle Magazine, I then went on to edit the Style section of Epigram 2012-2013. Now keen to pursue a career in journalism/editorial work, I look forward to writing my weekly column for The College Tourist, all the while seeing where my writing and travel will take me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You Might Also Like

Products We Love