Gijón and Bilbao Weekend Trips

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Erica facing her fear of heights in Gijón

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Colorful street in Gijón

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Erica Riddle and Gabi DiMarco having fun at the beach in Gijón

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Playa de Poniente (Gijón)

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Árbol de la Sidra statue made of recycled sidra bottles (Gijón)

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The Zubizuri bridge in Bilbao

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The colorful pretty houses in Bilbao

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Maddy McDonnell and Erica Riddle on the Bilbao Boat Tour

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Selfie with Gabi and Maddy on the boat tour

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Group selfie on the Zubizuri bridge

 

Oviedo as a Campus

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On Monday, several Temple students and I took a break from our routine at La Casa de las Lenguas and went on our first field trip in Oviedo. Our art history professor took our class to San Julián de los Prados, a church that’s just a short walk from campus and practically across the street from where I live with my host family. I pass the building every morning on my way to class, and although it’s very much integrated into the city’s landscape, it stands out from the apartment buildings and cafes surrounding it. Unlike anything else in the vicinity, the church was built during the 9th century, when Asturias was a kingdom and Oviedo was its capital. We had class inside, so we were able to walk around and look closely at some of the church’s details, like the paintings that remain on the walls, after our professor finished her explanations. As she continually reminded us, it’s not every day that you get to learn about pre-Romanesque art while sitting in a pre-Romanesque building and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now I’m just hoping the church doesn’t lose its charm once I start studying for my first exam next week.

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San Julían de los Prados

Our visit to the church was an obvious way to connect our surroundings to what we’ve been studying, but my art class isn’t the only one that’s taught me about Oviedo. Mentions of the city appear in readings and lectures, and my professors are always trying to help us understand “asturianismos,” or variations in vocabulary and pronunciation that are specific to the Asturias region. The brief lessons on local cultural and linguistic quirks have really helped with my day-to-day interactions outside of class, like when I’m reading menus and come across words that I never would have encountered in my Spanish classes in the U.S.

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This mural is one of Oviedo’s many homages to Clarín.

Most of my classes are taught by the University of Oviedo’s professors, but I’m also taking Directed Readings with Jaime Durán, the program director from Temple. In his class we’ve reviewed some of the major movements in Spanish literature and read two different texts set in Asturias. Clarín, one of the authors we’ve studied, lived in Oviedo for many years and showed his love for the region by using it as the backdrop for some of his most famous works. His name appears all over the city, so learning about him in class also taught me more about the some of the streets, buildings, and statues that I walk by every day.

With its centuries-old churches and green, mountainous surroundings, Oviedo seems like a perfect setting for a literary classic, and Spanish writers aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed. According to Woody Allen, “Oviedo is a delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city. It is as if it did not belong to this world, as if it did not exist…Oviedo is like a fairy-tale.” Luckily for me, Oviedo does exist, and this semester I have plenty of time to explore it up close!

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Woody Allen, Oviedo’s #1 fan?

From Vacation to Immersion

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After arriving in Spain, I felt the same kind of excitement that I usually feel after arriving in a new place, so much so that it almost felt like the beginning of a long vacation. Because I had never been to Spain before, I was ready to fit in as many unique experiences as possible, and everything around me—the buildings, the food, the people—seemed new and different. I had been planning to study abroad here for longer than I had planned any trip before, so every sight and activity during the first few weeks felt like payoff for all the time I spent waiting to begin this semester.

Since I first got to Oviedo, I’ve gradually started to think differently about being here. The initial excitement didn’t wear off, and I’m still just as thrilled to be studying abroad in Spain as I was to fly here in the first place, but I realized that having a culturally immersive experience would be difficult (or impossible) if I held on to the vacation mentality. In an effort to make sure I’m not missing out on the “real life” aspects of living and studying in a different city, I’ve made a few conscious decisions and some other, less conscious changes to my attitude and habits while in Spain:

1) Studying abroad means studying (among other things).

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Campus El Milán, where I attend classes with students from Temple and other universities

Okay, so this one wasn’t exactly a huge revelation on my part, but I think it’s an important thing to consider before and during any academic program abroad. Having a routine has helped more than anything to make me feel like I’m living in Oviedo and not just taking an extended break from my life in the U.S. Classes may not be the most glamorous part of studying in another country, but taking them seriously is a simple way to establish that sense of normalcy.

2) Sightseeing isn’t the same as immersion.

After the fast-paced first week in Madrid, I was accustomed to long days full of excursions and tours. Settling into Oviedo required slowing down and remembering the things I wanted to do in addition to visiting museums and historical sites. I enjoy sightseeing, but I don’t think it would be a great way to spend more than four months, especially if I hope to feel like more of a student than a tourist. With that in mind, I’ve reminded myself to spend at least as much time participating in conversations and activities here as I spend observing them.

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Calle de Uría, one of Oviedo’s main streets for shopping

3) Discovering similarities is just as valuable as recognizing differences.

So far in Oviedo I’ve met local students, explored the oldest part of the city, eaten typical Asturian cuisine, and watched Spanish television with my host family. I’ve also shopped at H&M, eaten pizza, and gone to see an English movie. As much as I love to learn about the traditions that are different from my own, pretending that Spain has nothing in common with the U.S. would mean ignoring a big part of the local culture. To make sure unrealistic expectations don’t keep me from appreciating and understanding the city around me, I’ve tried not to measure my experiences in terms of their “newness” or “differentness,” but instead to enjoy opportunities as they come.

A semester abroad offers experiences that shorter trips might not, but it also requires a different kind of approach. These reminders have so far helped me take in both the most exciting and the most unexpected aspects of studying in Oviedo.

First Impressions of Oviedo

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The Oviedo Cathedral

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One of the many pretty streets in Oviedo

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The delicious pizza at Pizzería La Competencia

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Erica Riddle trying to pour sidra the right way

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Alex, Faith and Erin at Tierra Astur the night of our first group dinner

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Students enjoying the first group dinner at Tierra Astur

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Students posing at the Santa María del Naranco church

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Students posing with the Temple flag on the Monte Naranco hike

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Monte Naranco

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The pretty view seen from the front steps of Casa de Las Lenguas

España – Spring 2016 Orientation Week Part II

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Group picture in Segovia in front of the ancient Roman Aqueduct

 

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Students listening to our tour guide Jerry talk about the Avila Cathedral

 

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Students listening to our tour guide Jerry in Segovia

 

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Sean, Nathan and Amma at a restaurant in Madrid

 

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Jon and Victoria at a restaurant in Madrid

 

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Panoramic view of Toledo

 

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Drinking the popular cafe con leche in Segovia

 

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The exterior of the Toledo Cathedral

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Stained glass window inside the Avila Cathedral

 

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The main altar in the Toledo Cathedral

 

My Brief Introduction to Spain and Its History

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On January 4th I left Houston to begin my semester abroad. After a few nerve-racking snags at the beginning of my trip (no amount of planning can foresee an airport parking meter swallowing your mom’s credit card), I settled in for my two-flight trip to Spain. Fourteen hours of traveling felt like a long time, but I made it feel a little bit shorter by reminding myself that the limited legroom and airline meals would be far outweighed by the semester I had ahead of me.

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These globes decorated the city for El Día de los Reyes.

When my flight landed at the airport in Madrid, I met up with another Temple student, Faith, to make our way to the hotel where the group stayed during our week-long orientation. We spent the rest of the day meeting other students in the program and exploring the area around the hotel. We arrived on the day before El Día de los Reyes, which for children in Spain is similar to Christmas Day in the United States. The decorations and activity both added to the excitement of our arrival and showed us how culturally important the holiday is in our host country.

During our orientation week, the group visited famous sites in Madrid and several nearby cities, and our tour guide Jerry explained a lot of the history and cultural significance of the buildings and art we saw. One of the places we visited was Segovia, which still has an aqueduct that was constructed around 2,000 years ago, when the city was part of the Roman Empire. I found it difficult to wrap my head around how old it was, but long-standing structures are a common theme in Spain. The wide variety of art and architecture reflects the country’s long and complex history, which I hope to understand better by the end of this semester.

We also spent a day in Toledo, the city that appears in many of the paintings by one of Spain’s most well-known artists, El Greco. Before we began our tour, we stopped at an overlook to view the city from the same perspective that El Greco used during the 16th century. Toledo is a great example of Spain’s many cultural influences, as its most prominent architecture includes its cathedral as well as Islamic-influenced bridges and buildings.

During our six days in Madrid and the surrounding areas, I learned more about Spain’s history than I anticipated. The orientation week wasn’t just a history lesson, though, because with each tour or visit to a historical site I learned something new about the country’s culture. Both in class and in everyday conversations since I arrived in Oviedo, I’ve heard people make references to some of the artists, works, and historical periods that we learned about from those tours. While visiting some of the most famous places in Spain, I felt as though I was beginning to orient myself in the history and culture of the country that I’ll be getting to know more closely for the rest of the semester.

 

España – Spring 2016 Orientation Week Part I

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Building on La Carrera de San Jerónimo in Madrid

 

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La Plaza Mayor at night while the lights were still up

 

 

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Panoramic view of La Plaza Mayor in the daytime

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Palacio Real in Madrid

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The Cathedral in Segovia

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Gabi DiMarco and Victoria Samsel in the Garden in El Escorial

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Students eating at a restaurant in Madrid after a day of touring

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Louis Pera and Sarah Godwin at a restaurant in Madrid

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Students posing in front of San Jerónimo el Real church

 

 

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Group picture with our tour guide Jerry in Toledo

 

Cold Feet at Crunch Time

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After months (okay, years) of planning, in just one week I’ll be flying to Spain to begin my semester abroad. I’ve known I wanted to study abroad since before I decided to double-major in Global Studies and Spanish, and even before I chose Temple. In fact, my desire to study abroad was just about the only thing I knew for certain when I started looking at colleges. Because I’ve had this plan for so long, I sometimes forget how challenging and intimidating the experience can be. Don’t get me wrong—the fact that I’ll be an ocean away from my family, my friends, and my favorite bagel vendor for almost five months has crossed my mind more than a few times—but the distance has never caused me to think twice about my intention to experience Spanish culture and language firsthand.

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This luggage scale and I are going to become good friends for the next week.

The first time I got a taste of hesitation was about a month ago, during my Uber ride to the airport on my way home for Thanksgiving. As we were pulling away from my apartment near campus, the driver, Amber, politely asked about the two enormous suitcases I had just heaved into the back of her car. I explained that, in preparation for my semester abroad, I was starting to empty out my apartment and was bringing as many belongings as possible home with me to Houston. We got to talking about travel in general, and Amber seemed especially interested in my plans to study in Spain. As I told her about the program, I became more excited myself, but she soon started to ask questions that hadn’t even occurred to me.

Some of the things Amber asked about were similar to concerns that I know are really common. She wondered about safety for students in unfamiliar cities, so I told her about some of the information I’d received in my Program Manual. What really surprised her, though, was one of the parts of the program that I’m looking forward to the most. She was completely astonished when I told her I would be living in a homestay. “You’re going to live with total strangers for five months?” she asked, disbelievingly, “What if they’re crazy?!”

While preparing for the semester, I realized I would soon be living with people I didn’t know, but I had generally focused more on the process of getting to know them than on the challenges that could arise. After listening to Amber’s questions, I began to think about the potential differences between my host family’s culture and mine. I know that I’m excited about settling into a new place and learning about the people I meet, but I might also be surprised or confused by some of the customs I encounter. In a partial effort to maintain my own confidence, I explained to Amber that I had filled out a survey with some of my preferences, that I knew students who had successfully built lasting relationships with their host families while studying abroad, and most importantly, that I hoped to develop an understanding of my hosts’ culture and daily life, including any aspects that I might find challenging at first. I definitely believed all of the things I told her, but by the time we had arrived at the airport and I had unloaded my two massive suitcases from her car, some of Amber’s apprehension had started to rub off on me. After all, I would be flying across an ocean and moving in with strangers in less than two months. Did I know what I was getting into?

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Guidebooks and deep breaths help fight off pre-departure nerves.

After that moment of panic on the curb in front of the Philadelphia International Airport, I’ve returned to my typical levels of excitement, with only minor amounts of stress creeping in when I think about packing (I’m still in slight denial that I’ll only be able to bring one suitcase). I spent a good part of my flight to Houston reminding myself of all the reasons I wanted to study abroad in the first place: I’ve always loved learning about the history and culture of different places, it’ll be a great opportunity to practice Spanish, and the strangers who welcome me into their home in Oviedo will probably be pretty incredible people.

 

3 Weeks, 3 Differences

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Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 2.33.32 PMHaving never been out of the country, I had very little idea of what to expect when spending a month in a foreign city where few people speak my native language. In preparation for my study abroad trip, I think I may have braced myself a little too much for the culture shock of Spain, assuming there would be such dramatic differences between Spanish and American cultures. While there are notable differences between the two nations, the more I speak and spend time around native Spaniards, the more I’m convinced that people are not all that different from one another. While our customs and preferences may be different, people are people, no matter where they were born and raised. All that being said, here are 3 cultural differences I’ve observed after 3 weeks in Spain:

1. My Observation of Observing

One interesting cultural difference I’ve observed is the Spanish tendency to stare at others. I love people watching for sure, but like many Americans, I will quickly look away if I’m caught staring at someone. The Spanish do not share this sense of embarrassment; when walking the streets, sitting at a café, or a park, they tend to boldly observe one another. On numerous occasions, I’ve caught someone staring at me, and when I meet their eye, they do not turn away. At first I thought I had something on my face or stood out completely as a tourist, but I’ve come to understand that it’s just a strong sense of curiosity. Stare on, Spain. Stare on.

2. Pace of Life

In Spain, the pace of life is very different from that of the U.S. Unlike a morning commute in Philly, characterized by beeping cars and aggressive SEPTA crowds, the people of Oviedo appear to be in no rush getting from one place to another. During the day, people can be seen slowly strolling the streets, window-shopping, or relaxing on park benches. During the afternoons, not all, but many people head home for a siesta, a short nap or break, and then return to work for a bit in the evenings. When it comes to eating, a meal in Spain can take up to 3 hours, and no one immediately rushes off when given the check. The Spanish have a unique word, “sobremesa,” which refers to conversation that occurs after dinner, and restaurants are in no rush to turn over tables, allowing people to stay as long as they please. This is definitely a refreshing change of pace from the U.S. where productivity and efficiency are often valued over leisure.

Campo de San Francisco, the perfect place to relax in Oviedo

Campo de San Francisco, the perfect place to relax in Oviedo

3. Differences in Provinces  

Before deciding to study abroad in Spain, I admittedly knew very little about the geographic and political makeup of the nation. I later learned that Spain is divided into fifty autonomous provinces, each with their own unique identity. Oviedo, located in the northern province of Asturias, is very different from the extremely warm and sunny southern provinces or the eastern provinces, many of which speak a unique Catalan dialect. Even within a single province, different cities have their own character. On our last excursion we visited the city of Santillana del Mar. Located in the province of Cantabria, the historic town is surrounded by lush fields and houses the Museum of Torture. We then headed to the Asturian region of Llanes, a coastal beach town, before heading home to Oviedo. All of these cities were within a few hours of one another, but they each had distinct identities, architecture, natural landscapes, and customs. Many people who live outside of the U.S. are unaware of the differences in culture and landscape among the 50 states, and I am guilty of not being fully aware of the large differences between the 50 Spanish provinces. Nonetheless, the more I learn about the different regions of the country, the more eager I am to explore them.

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The Church of the Colegiata in Santillana del Mar

A view of the sea in the coastal town of LLanes

A view of the sea in the coastal town of LLanes

First Impressions of Oviedo

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It’s crazy to think I have officially been in Spain for 2 weeks now. Time flies! I spent my first week of Orientation in Madrid, and have spent the last week in the city of Oviedo, located about 5 hours north in the Province of Asturias. After being in each city for 1 week, I’ve noticed some big difference between the two environments.

The Mountains of of Asturias, as seen on the bus-ride from Madrid to Oviedo

The Mountains of Asturias, seen on the bus-ride from Madrid to Oviedo

Size

Madrid is a heavily populated urban area with over 3 million inhabitants, many of whom come from all over the globe. Oviedo, on the other hand, has a little over 200 thousand citizens, many of whom have lived in Asturias for an extended period of time. In fact, my host mom has lived in the city her entire life! Along with a reduced population, the physical size of the city is much smaller. After only a week, I’ve gotten a good idea of the city’s layout and have become familiar with the cities main attractions–the University campus, the Theater, the Calle Gascona, a major street full of restaurants and Sidrerias, and the Cathedral of Oviedo.

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Catedral de Oviedo, the largest Cathedral in the city

In addition, because the city is much smaller, it seems that students studying abroad here get a lot more one-on-one attention. On Wednesday we had the opportunity to tour the Ayuntamiento de Oviedo (City Hall) and got our picture in the paper. Clearly, Temple Spain is doing big things. One week in and already famous!

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Temple Students on the front page of the newspaper in Oviedo

Climate

I thought I was used to the heat, as summers in Philly can get pretty sweltering. Turns out, they have nothing on summers in Madrid. Temperatures started out pretty mild in the mornings, but by late afternoon, temperatures ranged from high 90’s to about 106 throughout the week. In Oviedo, because of the city’s proximity in the North, the weather is much more mild. Comparable to weather in Ireland, most days the temperature averages somewhere in the 70’s. On bright, sunny days, everyone flocks to the nearby beaches in Gijon, but the city also has a fair share of rainy, overcast days. No matter the weather, it is a far cry from the sweltering heat of Madrid.

A sunny morning in Oviedo on my walk to class

A sunny morning in Oviedo on my walk to class

Prevalence of English Speakers

Much like New York City or Los Angeles, Madrid is a culturally diverse city, with inhabitants from all over the globe. While this is a fantastic aspect in terms of access to museums, art exhibits, shopping, and dining, it also means that a large percentage of the population speaks some or fluent English. At times when I would use Spanish to communicate with someone, they could tell I wasn’t a native speaker, and replied in English in order to be courteous to me. This is not the case in Oviedo. My host mom (like the majority of my classmate’s host families) speaks no English. The vast majority of Oviedo’s population, including many store owners, waiters, and pharmacists, speak no English. Therefore, in order to communicate with anyone or make purchases, speaking in Spanish is a necessity. This was definitely intimidating at first, and people can usually tell right away that I’m not a native speaker, but the more I practice, the less daunting it becomes. In a larger city where it’s easy to revert to the language you are more comfortable with, it’s a lot harder to improve your language skills.

Day-to-Day Life

During the orientation week in Madrid, each day had roughly the same structure: We would hop on a bus around 9 AM, travel to our touring destination for the day, return around 2 PM for lunch, and then we were free in the evening to explore on our own. In Oviedo, we still have lots of chances to explore the city, but we also have to factor in time spent taking classes. We take classes each morning until around 2 PM, and afterwards, we are free to spend the remainder of our afternoon and evening however we choose.

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A cloudy day at the Universidad de Oviedo Campus

Popular activities include going to a park, the beach, studying in a café, visiting a restaurant, shopping or taking a siesta. So many options! In addition, on Saturdays, the University hosts all-day excursions to nearby towns. This past Saturday, one of the towns we visited was Ribadesella, a picturesque beach-town on Spain’s northern coast. There is definitely a nice balance between time spent learning in the classroom and time spent outside the classroom in order to take advantage of all that Oviedo has to offer.

Playa de Santa Marina, located in the northern coastal town of Ribadesella

Playa de Santa Marina, located in the northern coastal town of Ribadesella

Another big change between Madrid and Oviedo is the living situation, which went from shared hotel rooms to homestays. It is definitely an adjustment living in another person’s home and communicating only in Spanish, but even after one week, I have felt that my Spanish improving due to the constant need to practice. The view from my apartment didn’t take much time to get used to.

View of Calle Cervantes, Oviedo

View of Calle Cervantes, Oviedo

Regardless of the differences between each of the two weeks, Spain has been a great experience so far, and I am eager to spend my next 3 in Oviedo!

Hasta luego,

Kenz