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10 Things Europe Has Taught Me

10 Things Europe Has Taught Me May 29, 20163 Comments

Words Of Hope Blog-- dedicated to vulnerable writing about my crazy life. Check out my new tab Missed Moments about my experiences on public transportation!

In just three weeks in Europe, I’ve learned a lot.

1. Europeans like to stare. A lot. Hi, yes, I am American. Yes I do have giant blue eyes. Yes my eyelashes are ridiculously. Long yes my hair is pretty curly and yes I do have resting smile face– a chronic syndrome where I am literally always smiling–but no that does not mean I enjoy you staring at me. In fact, as you continue to stare you actually won’t be able to figure me out more, because sometimes it’s not about just looking but actually caring. Ooooh my rant turned profound.

2. Generosity is universal. My mom is the most generous person I know. She spends every waking minute– which, for her, is almost the entire day because she rarely sleeps–giving her time and money to people and organizations. Basically every influential building in my hometown has somehow involved my mom, and she does these things from her heart with the utmost humility and determination. Sometimes I look at our selfish world and am rather pessimistic, wondering if my mom is the only person who really understands this notion of generosity. But being with a host mom has changed from pessimism to awestruck wonder: generosity can be universal. My host mom is constantly buying me gifts when she is shopping at markets, bought me a dress and a necklace on the day I arrived, insisted on paying for my medication when I had that 103 fever, takes me out to dinner and won’t even let me open my purse. Her actions reminds me that generosity is not confined to location, language, or blood.

3. The Spanish healthcare system is not exactly as great as I glorified it to be. And getting sick so far from home really, really sucks. Being rushed from hospital to hospital because the first one was on “dinner break”, the second one didn’t accept Americans, the third couldn’t work their copier to copy my Passport, all while having a 103 fever was simply not ideal. For the record, the fourth hospital only saw me because they were just plain tired of me having a breakdown in front of everyone. See, Mom, sometimes breakdowns are good!

4. Jet lag is REAL. It’s like you’re carrying around a sack of bricks. People are simply lying if they act like they can just hop on over to Europe from the US and go full steam ahead. My parents know full well that adjusting was really, really hard. I had no energy. I was waking up at random times of the night. I got some stomach bug. My runs were pathetic and my work outs were more like time outs. I was in a bad mood. Because of this, I strongly believe we need to change the travel culture/voluntourism/mission trip notion that assumes that people can just jump on over to cultures very different from their own and immediately adjust and be 100% present from day 1. That’s dangerous because if you push yourself too hard because you think you should be adjusting faster and that it should be easy, you get a 103 fever and are rushed to 4 hospitals. Oh yeah, did I mention the doctor didn’t speak English well and accidentally tried to tell me I had yellow fever instead of trying to let me know that I had “less yellow (more pale) skin and a fever.” Talk about scary. Also slightly racist? Hey, at least she finally gave me an antibiotic.

5. The US needs to chill. The Spanish are not as stressed. It’s just a fact. They take a 2.5 hour lunch break. They work shorter hours. They live simply and minimally. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of just sitting at the dining room table and doing nothing but staring out the window. Because there can and should be time for that.

6. However…… There’s this notion of EFFICIENCY that Spain just cannot understand. At all. In any context. Whatsoever. I repeat: they are unbelievably (!!!!!!!!) inefficient. They take FOREVER to accomplish simple tasks. They close at absurd hours (I kid you not the woman at the emergency room was on a dinner break when I first got there…. Is that even legal?), feel no sense of urgency, and are very disorganized. They believe more in the “journey” (the experience) than the outcome, which is a wonderful concept unless you, oh I don’t know, don’t want to be in line at Starbucks for 27 minutes.

6. Allotting time to read the books I’ve said for three years I want to read is not only relaxing but borderline necessary. What have I been doing????? How did I possibly think studying a little harder would be more worthwhile than reading famous books by inspiring authors? I’ve learned more in two weeks than I did the entire Spring semester! And I learned quite a lot last semester so kudos to these books.

7. Time is relative. In Spain, time is an approximation. Being fifteen minutes late is still considered on time, and start times are just suggestions. When my host mom says she’ll be home in an hour, she means two hours. When she says dinner will start around 8pm, she means 9:30. Spaniards rarely check their watches, and they don’t take offense when they are waiting on their friend for thirty minutes–even an hour–to meet them somewhere. Time is relative in another sense, too. The time change can be difficult, especially the nine hours between Spain and the West Coast. I keep telling my friends, “let’s talk later tomorrow” and then completely confusing myself on what day tomorrow is given their location. And don’t get me started about the struggles of military time…

8. Just like generosity transcends borders, so does one’s love for Christ. Being in love with Jesus means you’re in love with Jesus. Whether you’re loving him in North Carolina or California or Madrid or Paris. Love transcends language, border, culture and rationality. I’ve never felt the Lord more than I have at the church here in Madrid. The sermons are in Spanish that’s far too fast and sometimes way over my head. I catch phrases and words and verses here and there… And I whisper amen… I watch the pastor’s exuberant cries of joy for the Lord, His deep desire for us to know Him through his captivating eyes and powerful gestures. I scream my favorite contemporary songs, not needing to know the Spanish because the melodies have been engrained in my soul. With our hands raised together the world stops spinning, stops segregating, stops judging, stops trying to plan the future and instead stands in awe of the ability to be alive and to live for the Lord of the universe. Pretty. Fucking. Cool.

9. Oops, I guess France taught me how to curse. ^ Excuse my French.

10. Behind the overintellectualizing and inability to enjoy the simplicity of art sometimes just being art–and understanding that that right there is complex in and of itself, which if you think about THAT is mind blowing–there’s a lot to be learned about the incredible art around us. Painters, sculptors and architects have expressed themselves– their dreams, frustrations, and passions–and their contextual society– politically, socially and economically, and we get to see and to grapple with their expressions. This is the real way to learn. To step inside someone else’s shoes and to understand their own work from their perspective, to understand how they saw the world at that time, to grasp less biased and more striking history. To learn in a liberating, grade-free, inspiring, independent way. To learn how to be responsible, how to care for yourself and for others, how to stay true to who you are when your environment continues to change, how to embrace the unfamiliar but be reminded of how much you take the familiar for granted. That is learning, friends. That is what helps you make the world a better place (which, if you somehow forgot from the commodification of education and the commercialization of universities and the discrimination of society, is actually the point of learning).

Words Of Hope Blog-- dedicated to vulnerable writing about my crazy life. Check out my new tab Missed Moments about my experiences on public transportation!


  1. Hi Hope!

    I love your blog, and I loving reading your always-profound and open-minded musings when I see you have a new post! I usually agree with you 100%, and I love seeing how conscientious you are and how thoughtful your reflections are, but having lived in Spain/Europe for four years now, I would like to comment on a few of these thoughts. (Sorry it’s quite long! It’s a topic that’s near and dear to me.)

    First, you are spot on about a lot of your points; Europeans – Spaniards especially – do like to stare, and as I’m a minority, I get worse than stares sometimes. (Hearing “arigato” or “ni hao” or “china fea” on a near-daily basis in certain big cities can be emotionally exhausting at times.) Time is certainly relative in Spain and life is generally significantly more unstressed, many Spaniards do tend to be rather inefficient, and generosity is definitely universal. Also, if you feel the love of Christ in church in Madrid, you’ll need to return one day and experience Semana Santa in Andalucía. I’ve never seen a group of people more devoted and more fervently passionate about their faith than the Andalusians during Holy Week. Also, I suggest you one day return to walk the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. Finally, your number 10 is absolutely lovely, and a great sign that you are making the most of your time abroad.

    However, I’m a little surprised at how summarily you dismiss the healthcare from your one experience, or how general or unequivocal some of the other lessons you’ve learned are. Not only do I have to disagree on some things, I’m surprised at your tone/choice of words in expressing some of these thoughts! It seems very unlike you to be so definite about something you’ve learned in such a short time about something so unfamiliar or to paint with such broad strokes. Even then, I know that wasn’t your intention, and I might simply be hearing a different tone from the one you intended to write in since I’m a bit sensitive and biased with my love for my current country. Regardless, I though you might appreciate some thoughts from another point of view.

    I’ve lived in Galicia for a few years, Andorra (which is culturally very similar to Catalonia) for a year, and in Andalucía for a year, and been to all but three of the seventeen autonomous communities of Spain, having been to/spoken at conferences in Madrid and Valencia. I studied abroad in Salamanca for a semester, living with a family, and also returned having learned a great deal.

    Despite that, I realize now that I barely scratched the surface of life in Spain/Europe in those four months. Reading my study abroad blog makes me cringe a little, knowing what I know now. Living here as a working adult with a salary, a rented apartment and other adult obligations and plenty of free time has given me a look into the country that I could never have gotten from my experience as a student. Additionally (as I’m positive you know), it’s dangerous to make generalizations about an entire country based on just one area of it, and the Spaniards (many of whom don’t even identify by that term since their regional differences are so great) defend and argue those differences more vehemently than anyone I’ve ever met.

    Regarding number 3, there are certainly many problems with the Spanish healthcare system and although it’s not uncommon for it to take a long time for them to get something treated (but generally only if it’s not an immediate threat to health), that’s certainly not always the case, and it’s impossible to judge from one experience! I had the complete opposite experience; I went to Spain nervous about the inefficiency of its health system, and have ended up incredibly impressed. I’ve also had both private and public insurance while here, so I’ve seen how both work. My first year, I played soccer on a competitive soccer team, and was given private healthcare (along with the healthcare I already had from my job) to go with it. While playing soccer/futsal, I pulled my hamstring, strained my back and neck, rolled my ankle, and bruised my coccyx. Outside of soccer, I’ve had two corneal ulcers, conjunctivitis, and multiple versions of the flu/cold. I went to the private hospital three times for the sports injuries, and was treated immediately all three times with no more than a 20 minute wait. I was immediately taken to get X-rays for the ankle during that visit, and was amazed and profoundly grateful to know it wasn’t broken and to not have to pay a thing for those confirmation X-rays to be taken. I was seen immediately for the corneal ulcer both times as well. One of those times was in Andorra, and as Andorra’s system is more expensive than Spain’s, I was nervous about paying for the third and fourth check-up appointments I was advised to make. Upon seeing my concern, the doctor told me (in perfect English – he’d even been to Raleigh before!) that although he wasn’t supposed to, he could see me for free if I wasn’t able to pay because he wanted to be sure the ulcer was gone.

    This year in Spain, I’ve had to use the public national health insurance available to me, and at first, the paperwork was difficult. The inefficiency you mention was on display as I tried to get my card (although if I had been advised better, it would have be significantly easier than I made it). Before I was able to sift through the necessary documents to process the card, I got another form of conjunctivitis, and although I went from one health clinic that couldn’t see me because I was at the wrong one for my zip code to another that couldn’t see me because I wasn’t enrolled in the system yet, that one advised me to go to the emergency room. I got there in frustration and tears, and it admitted me immediately – completely illegally – because they would do that for anyone. I waited only about 40 minutes, and then they checked out my eye, gave me antibiotic drops and steroids for the inflammation, and let me go. All the Spaniards I talked to after that were surprised I didn’t go immediately to the emergency room, as they told me that it’s just how it works. Of course you’re supposed to be enrolled in the system to use the public hospital, but absolutely anyone to walk through the emergency room doors would get treatment, and if you have an address, they could send you the negligible bill, but if you don’t – if you’re a refugee or foreigner or tourist – they’ll see you anyway with no charge because “it would be crazy to not help someone who was ill.” I think that’s beautiful, and it’s another form of the generosity that you mentioned that I think our own healthcare system is sometimes simply not allowed to have with the way our legal system guides it. In four years, I’ve never been to a hospital – and I’ve been a good 8-9 times between my own injuries/illnesses and those of friends – where anyone has been on break, unable to help because of technical problems, or that has been closed.

    Also, “European healthcare” is a very broad term to use when making a judgment on it. The NHS system of England would be appalled to know you would lump its quality in with that of Spain’s (although both are ranked higher than ours by the World Health Organization), as would Norway’s or the Netherlands’.

    Regarding the general comments of inefficiency and a disregard for time, I’d agree that those things are definitely more prominent in Spain as a whole than in the US, but certain regions would absolutely take offense to those stereotypes. Of course, I wrote similar things in my blog when I studied abroad, but you seem more reflective and more conscientious than I was at your age, and your blog reaches significantly more people, so it might be an important thing to keep in mind when broadcasting lessons you’ve learned like these ones. I wouldn’t not include those observations, but I might consider writing them with a disclaimer about that being just what you’ve seen so far, and in the certain places you’ve visited.

    Madrid – like Salamanca – seems like a typical Spanish city, and is thus often mistaken for a microcosm of the whole. Touristy areas also tend to lure people into that trap. Now that I speak Galician and Catalan and have good friends in both regions, and have lived in those distinct areas (along with the couldn’t-be-more-Spanish region that is Andalucía that certainly does live up to the stereotypes – olé!), I could never go back to speaking about all of Spain in any form of generalized way. I get so annoyed at my Spanish friends when they do the same about the US. Of course we don’t eat hot dogs and hamburgers for every meal, and of course we’re not all fat and unhealthy. Those are all things I’ve heard, surprisingly frequently, and they drive me crazy, and my amazing, punctual Galician friends (who taught me how to correctly fold clothes and clean floors and who always beat me to the street corner where we meet to go to soccer practice) would scoff to think I consider Spaniards more inefficient. You have to get to really know people from the north, like the cold, serious, formulaic Basques, the earthy disgusted-by-Spanish-customs Catalans or the more-Celtic-than-Spanish bagpipe-wielding Galicians.

    With time, you might appreciate that my Spanish bank had been using the chip card and mobile banking long before American banks switched over to that more secure and efficient form of debit card or before my Wells Fargo allowed me to bank from my phone. You could see how practical and efficient their system of DNI (documento nacional de identidad) is, and how it being standardized nationally and separate from the driver’s license makes it easy for Spaniards of all ages to travel, get their passport, sign up for simple things like voting or a library card, and how it eliminates problems like easily being able to make a fake ID when underage or having to scrounge up multiple forms of ID for things when your birth certificate is locked away or your student ID doesn’t look official enough. You need to experience the Spanish AVE train system that is unbelievably fast, reliable, modern, and light years ahead of the American rail system. You might not realize that although Spanish classrooms are home to some behavioral traits that I first interpreted as inefficiency or lack of control or focus, high school students here have 5-7 more subjects per year than American students (although this is nuanced topic – they also don’t have as many extracurriculars or leadership/service expectations… a conversation for another time), thus covering topics at an early age that we never see or are first introduced to at university, and that despite the classroom behavior that seems appalling, they are normally assessed higher than US students in math and comparably in science. Like in the case of the doctor you met, it might seem like sometimes Spaniards are a bit deficient when it comes to foreign language/English, but did you know that in the last few years, it has become mandatory to pass the CEFR B1 (Common European Framework Reference for language learning – Intermediate level) exam to obtain any university degree? We have to take foreign language, yes, but they now have to prove that it stuck and that they can use it competently, regardless of their degree! It’s easy to get a first impression of inefficiency or laziness from life in Spain, but somehow it works for them and in many circumstances leads to a result or – more importantly – belies an actuality that is more efficient and more progressive than their sunshine and siesta lifestyle suggests.

    So, finally, I’m sorry if this ever sounds harsh or preachy! I know this was just a fun 10-things post, so I understand if the tone was meant to be more light and airy, but I love and feel part of Europe now, so I just really wanted to share my feelings on the matter. I had all the same thoughts at the start of my time here and after my short experience studying abroad, only to get deeper into the culture now than I imagined possible and to find myself questioning all the things I valued in the US and appreciating things I previously looked down on here. Some of my ex-students are now doing a year abroad at American high schools, and they too keep blogs of their time, and I send them the same message when they write about how easy American school is and how much less homework they have there, or how Americans eat fast food so much or how casually or unfashionably Americans dress. Wouldn’t hearing those things just infuriate you when you know that’s not what your experience was like, that they’re generalizing from a specific experience, or that they’re interpreting something hastily without having all the facts or cultural background to understand it?

    Hope this was an interesting read for you! Don’t let my comments bring you down or dampen your voice in any way! You really do have such a strong understanding of yourself and your experiences, so I just wanted to give you a little more to work with while you write and reflect.

    Enjoy yourself, and I’m glad to see you’re doing so well!!

    Un abrazo,

    P.S. Also, not everyone is lying when they say jet lag doesn’t affect them much. I’m an irregular sleeper in the US too, so it’s nothing an ordinary siesta can’t fix! 😉 Just playing though, of course there’s no harm it pushing for people to listen to their bodies and rest when they need it.

    1. Annie!!! Hi!! Wow it’s so good to hear from you! First of all, thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to thoughtfully comment. Overall, I definitely want to say that you are right: this was supposed to be more a light and airy (and an attempt at funny) post, but I know that’s far from how my usual posts are, so I probably should have made that disclaimer first. Second, I probably should have also mentioned that though I made it seem like I’ve just been here three weeks, I actually lived over two different summers in Seville and have been to Toledo, Córdoba, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Mallorca, Barcelona, and Salamanca (well, I will have been there in 3 weeks). I definitely haven’t lived for multiple years in Spain like you and I don’t speak other Spanish dialects so I’m definitely not as well versed as you, but I would just emphasize that I do have slightly more of a perspective than just my three weeks in Madrid. I can tell you without a doubt that the country is so vast… I mean, in every Spanish class I’ve ever taken our conversations always go back to the idea that so many regions want to become independent, because they’re all so different! The food, culture, attitudes, and general way of life are all so different in every region. But, when I said “Spanish” every time in this post, I meant the Madrid way of life, which I also probably should have clarified. Living in Sevilla was entirely different than living here in Madrid. Even my host mom when I told her I had already somewhat had the experience of living in Spain through my time in Sevilla was quick to remind me, “But Sevilla is like a different country.” And she’s right. None of the food I eat has been the same, none of the customs, many of the expressions are different, the city is SOOOOO much bigger and much more metropolis, and the attitudes of the people here about certain political, economic and social issues are different, too. I studied in a Spanish school when I was in Seville, so I understand a bit what you’re saying about their education system. I will say, to use the phrase I used before, this B1 certification is not all it’s cracked up to be, either. I received my B1 Spanish certification in eighth grade in Seville and I could barely speak in the past tense and didn’t trust myself to navigate an important conversation completely by myself in Spanish at all. I do think Europeans in general know more languages than we do, but again it’s definitely a generalization on your part and mine… We’re both just trying to make sense of it in our way hahah. I have taken the AVE four or five times, actually, and it’s rather incredible. Don’t get me started about the lack of security, though, but that’s not a Spanish problem; most of Europe (excluding Switzerland) has been pretty lax on the security, even after such intense terrorism issues! It’s scary!! Traveling between Spain and France this past month and in Italy with my family and hearing from experiences of my friends in Prague, Portugal and Germany, it’s pretty disheartening how many people can STILL glide through the train security without a blink, but again conversation for another time. Great point about the healthcare system. I will actually make an editorial change right now, because I don’t want to lump in the whole system. I have learned from one of my classes here that focuses a lot on the Spanish healthcare system that Spain did try to model its system after the UK, although I know some parts are different. I am actually so encouraged to hear your positive experiences at the hospital. My experience was truly a disaster, with my host mom even making a scene in one of the hospitals, screaming, “I thought the Spanish healthcare system was supposed to be generous and help everyone! Someone please help my daughter!” Since 2012, the Spanish healthcare system has accepted more and more “non-card” people–foreigners, immigrants, etc– and from what my professor and host mom have said, the system as a whole has gotten much better. My host mom LOVES her private doctor, he just only works a few hours a day. But there are obviously still problems with the system, as I unfortunately experienced. But I was not trying to say it’s bad, just that I had this glorified idea that the US should just forget its system all together and adopt a European one, and was disappointed when I got here and learned so much about the loopholes in the UK and Spanish systems. The point is just that nothing is perfect and we make a lot of sweeping generalizations (as I did all throughout my post, so I’m hypocritical and guilty of it, too!) about the best solutions for certain problems, and often we don’t know the whole story. I am soooooo impressed that you speak Galician and Catalan; I am beyond overwhelmed when I hear people speaking Euskara and Catalan– I basically run in the other direction, hahahah. I would love to hear more of your experiences and thanks for the feedback. Again, this was totally meant to be a more light and airy post about some musings I’ve had for a while, but I appreciate your commitment to stand up for the country you’re living in! That shows just how much it means to you, and I hope I’ll have that appreciation by the time I leave, too. Oh, yeah, and about the jet lag: I’m so jealous your body adjusts like that. You’re right, it was more just a precaution for people to take care of themselves. Thanks again for the feedback and maybe I’ll see you in Spain?!?! Also I don’t know how I’d get to be in Spain for Holy Week, but I’d love to see pictures if you have any. I’ve heard absolutely incredible things. God bless 🙂

  2. Hi Hope!! Sorry it took me so long to get back to you! I finished my job in Málaga and moved back up north to Galicia for the summer, so I’ve been busy. (And I’m just not good at responding to things, sometimes.)

    Glad to hear you’ve seen quite a few parts of Spain, and it makes sense that you would just be talking about one area for the sake of a short, fun post. Thanks for changing the wording on the healthcare system point! I agree with it so much more now! Also, It’s true that the B1 certificate is easy to obtain, although it might also just seem that way for people like us who had amazing language teachers at Summit and growing up, and who might naturally be more comfortable with other languages. I had some Spanish friends have to take an extra year to get their degree just because they failed English. I don’t understand how that happens, but can you imagine having to take 5 years to complete undergraduate because of a language requirement? Yikes.

    Definitely too bad you had such a terrible experience! It really does sound like a nightmare, although your host mom sounds so caring and wonderful, so it’s good you had her with you!! Hope you are still having an amazing time!

    Finally, I haven’t uploaded any pics from Semana Santa, but Google will give you the general idea: It really is something else.

    Un abrazo!

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