T H O U G H T S F R O M A B R O A D: There and Back Again
By: Jake Wittenberg, Junior, Illinois
This fall, I’ve been studying abroad in Toledo, Spain. Toledo is a culturally,historically, and religiously important city in the heart of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, the same province in which Don Quixote fought his famous battles against those pesky windmills that you read about in high school. Toledo is home of Spain’s most ornate cathedral and is situated on a cliff that rises against the Tagus River, which surrounds our walled city on three sides. Life “inside the wall,” as we say, is marked by Toledo’s rich cultural history and narrow streets, through most of which only the smallest of cars can pass. In its long history, this small place has been controlled by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and was even the capital of Spain! The strong religious history of Toledo is reflected in the architecture of many buildings and sheer number of religious institutions inside the wall—there are over 80 churches packed into this small space.
My experience in Toledo has been wonderful. When you ask people that live in other parts of Spain what they think of Toledo, they usually say that it is absolutely beautiful and also incredibly quiet and I can definitely confirm that Toledo is guilty as charged. For example, the sun sets behind a large rock outcropping, sending deep reds and purples over the Cathedral on a daily basis. The views from the top of the hill out over the Spanish landscape are some of the best in Spain. But, Toledo sure does have a quietness to it—we don’t even have a 24-hour McDonald’s, a staple in almost every Spanish city. Sunday through Wednesday nights present a unique problem, as there isn’t a single place inside the wall to get food after midnight. College is sure full of struggles.
While studying here I’ve had the opportunity to improve my Spanish and learn about the unique Spanish lifestyle. This includes mid-day naps, 9 PM dinners, wonderful tapas, and large amounts of Iberian ham. I live in a building called the Convent of San Juana de la Penitencia, which is an old Franciscan monastery situated in the heart of the walled city. I walk past the towering Cathedral on my way to grab an afternoon coffee every day (at the same shop, I should add), which I’ve learned to use as a way to get moving after my midday descanso. I’ve overindulged in bocadillos, which are delicious combinations of Iberian ham, Machengo cheese and a tomato/olive oil spread. These sandwiches are delicious. Iberian ham isn’t widely available in the states, so I’ve had to eat my fill while here.
I’ve also had the opportunity to travel throughout Spain and Europe while on this side of the pond. We’ve taken group trips to Oktoberfest in Munich (which included two nights of camping in the Bavarian forest), London, and Amsterdam.
I’ve also visited Spain’s Hawaii--the Canary Islands—and some of Spain’s other major cultural cities, such as Barcelona, Madrid, Ávila, Salamanca, Valencia, and more. These trips have given me a great sense of Spain’s national cultural fabric, which is marked by language and cultural differences from the north to the south and the east to the west. Learning about the unique grouping of people and provinces that make up Spain has been an invaluable part of my experience here.
Studying abroad is something I firmly believe that all students should take advantage of at Notre Dame. While a full language immersion program (such as mine in Toledo) might not be for everyone, studying abroad anywhere can help students gain so much more perspective and learn about a culture that isn’t their own. I’ve learned the ins-and-outs of everyday Spanish language, something I never would have learned in a textbook. I’ve been able to enjoy the customs and festivals of a variety of European nations, and I’ve eaten way too much delicious food along the way! While I’m looking forward to spring semester in St. Ed’s, I’ll definitely return home with fond memories of my time here in Toledo.
Your Spanish-speaking Stedsman,