A Whole New “Mundo”

¡Saludos de Alcalá de Henares, España! 


The moment I stepped off the plane, I knew I was in a whole new mundo, world. Everything was in Spanish with secondary English subtitles every now and then. People spoke Spanish as their first language, and most people didn’t speak any English at all. I know that is all obvious—I mean, what did I expect? I was in Spain! But for someone coming from an all-English culture, where Spanish is a secondary language it was quite a shock, even when I was expecting it.

My first experiences with only Spanish speakers was in the airport. I was asking a worker if he had seen anyone with a poster that said “Universidad de Alcalá” on it and I started in English since I thought he may understand, working in an airport. Nope. He said, “No entiendo”, (I don’t understand.) and then I started using my Spanish. He told me where to go so I said, “gracias” and went on my way. Another time, a random guy came up to me in the airport and asked me, “hablas español?” I replied, “sí”, and this guy started speaking 1,000,000 miles per hour at me about how his debit card wasn’t working and he needed bills so that he could purchase a bus ticket. He needed to borrow some cash. I was REALLY shocked at how much I picked up of what he said. I’m telling you—I’d never heard Spanish spoken so quickly in my life. I only had big bills on me, so I had to tell him sorry, I couldn’t help him, and he walked away. 

Since the last post, I traveled from London to Madrid where I will now reside with my Spanish host family for the next 4 months. Well actually, I’m not technically in Madrid, the city. Let me explain:


Like the United States, Spain has provinces which are much like the individual states. Each province has its own individual character, just like in America! For example, California differs from Texas which differs from New York. Likewise, Spain has its own little “states”, so to speak. La Rioja is known for wine, Andalucia is known for its beautiful coasts and Moorish architecture and Castilla de Leon in best known for its castles. The list goes on and on! With that said, Madrid is both a province AND a ciudad (city). Within the province of Madrid, therein lies the capital, also Madrid. I hope that was clear and I didn’t confuse anyone!

So technically speaking, I am in Madrid—the province that is. I live about 30-45 minutes away from the city of Madrid. For those of you back home, this is the Geneseo to the Rochester. There, now it should all be clear! What city do I live in? None other than Alcalá de Henares! Many of you may be asking yourselves, “well what’s so great about Alcalá?” Well, my friends…let me tell you!

Have you ever heard of Don Quixote?  Have you ever heard of Miguel Cervantes? What about Cardinal Cisneros (yeah, me either.) Okay, if those don’t get you, do you know what a stork is? Now we’re getting somewhere. Alcalá is a very richly historic small city known for being the birthplace of Miguel Cervantes de Saveedra, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha—you know, that crazy guy that attacks a bunch of windmills in a field.


Statue of Cervantes, located at la Plaza Cervantes


The famous Don Quijote statue, located right outside his home (which I toured!).

In addition, the city is home to the Universidad de Alcalá, the first (or second) university ever of Spain. There is still some debate between Spaniards regarding which university came first—Salamanca or Alcalá. This university was founded in 1499 by Cardinal Cisneros, who was a pretty cool dude for his time.



Statue of Ximenes Cisnero, right outside the unversity.

Universities were a pretty big deal, because in that time period not many people dedicated themselves to study and research. People just did what they needed to survive. To put things into perspective, he lived during the time of Christopher Columbus. 

The old name of Alcalá was actually a Roman one, Complutense. After many events that I don’t feel like going into detail about, the name changed to Alcalá. Where in the world did that name come from?! Arabia—that’s where. Many of the words you hear in Spanish that have the “al” or “a” sound in the beginning come from Arabic. Actually, there are THOUSANDS of Spanish words that come from Arabic!! (I guess 800 years of ruling Spain will do that…) For example, “azúcar” (sugar), “almohada” (rug), “ajedrez” (chess), “café”, (coffee) and even the word “hasta”, as in HASTA LA VISTA, BABY. 



(Little did Arnold know, he was speaking Spanish AND Arabic!)


Another cool thing about Alcalá is that the writer of Spain’s first grammar book, Antonio de Nebrija, studied at the university. Let me reiterate: the writer of Spain’s first grammar book attended the SAME university that I’m attending now. Wow. Many U.S. universities were modeled after the University of Alcalá as well like the University of San Diego and Texas Tech University. 


The University of San Diego, inspired by my university’s architecture


Even for you non-history buffs out there, this will be pretty interesting to you (I hope: “Ojalá”—another Arabic word!) Storks. Or around here, las cigüeñas are a bird that are legally protected by the government. They nest in roofs the big important buildings of the city and it is illegal to hunt, harm or kill any of them since they were once endangered. I had never seen a real-live stork in my life until I came here. It was really neat, because all my life I’d just pictured them as this fabled fowl who brought babies to expectant parents. They are very big, grandiose creatures!


Nesting on top of historic buildings


All right, so now that we have a good background of the city let’s talk about some things I’ve done and/or experienced here so far. Where do I begin?? I’ve selected the following topics to discuss today:

1. Mis metas (My goals)

2. Mi familia afintrona (My host family)

3. Las tapas

4. El horario español (The Spanish schedule)




Obviously, I have come to Spain to improve my Spanish. Duh. But more specifically, what am I seeking to improve? During my stay I hope to:

1. Learn more about the Spanish culture. I plan on meeting this goal by spending time with Spanish speakers like my host family and other young people, taking classes and traveling to various cities around the country. Every city has its own distinct history and culture all in its own. You wouldn’t say that New York and Los Angeles are exactly the same, would you? Similarly, each city will offer its own unique perspective on the Spanish culture as a whole. Just being surrounded by native speakers in this new environment is already fostering that understanding and cultural growth in me. It is also creating a spark of curiosity—I am so anxious to get out there to visit the other cities!! (I need to wait for my loans though!)



2. Improve my array of vocabulary. What kind of Spanish speaker would I be if I had a limited vocabulary? I want to learn new ways of expressing the same ideas I’ve been expressing—synonyms, slang, expressions, “refranes”, “piropos” (pick-up-lines), conversation filler words, you name it. Through spending time with my family and friends, classes, and looking up words in my dictionary app on my phone, I hope to accomplish this goal. I have been diligently writing down and committing to memory each important word I come across on a daily basis. 

3. To speak quicker, with more accuracy and more fluidly. Yeah, I’m good at reading and writing in Spanish, and I’ve gotten really good at understanding the spoken language. However, I still lack a little in the speaking department. I can say what I need and express my feelings just fine at the moment, but not with the fluency that I would like to possess. By the end of this experience, I hope to speak quicker and more accurately.

4. To improve my Spanish accent! I would say that right now, my accent is at a 60%. It’s still pretty obvious that I’m a foreigner, but hey—I’m getting there. Luckily, I am enrolled in a phonetics course, which aims to hone in on accents and pronunciations. I can pronunciate very well, it’s the accent that still needs just a little bit of tweaking. I want to learn the Spanish accent here, and then learn the Argentinian accent when I go there (which by the way, I am SO doing!)



This is the Instituto Franklin, where I will be taking courses. 



So those are my goals for this upcoming semester. Now let me introduce mi familia!

My host dad met me at the university on the day before orientation and drove me back to my house. I was timid at first and still taking in all of my surroundings so I didn’t talk much, but I understood the majority of what he was saying. He told me that I understand Spanish very well. Yay! I got to my new home and met my host mom and two brothers, both younger than me—about the age of my middle school students back at home. (¡Hola to those of you reading this!) They greeted me with besos, which I’ll talk about in the next post!

My family is very nice and accommodating. They speak quickly to each other and a little slower to me so that I understand better. I kind of wish they would speak quicker to me so that I get used to it! I got my own room with a large desk, a bed (obviously), a coat rack, a dresser and a closet. I only had a carry-on bag and a purse so it didn’t take me long to unpack. By the way, I am officially the packing-light queen. I packed 4 months+ worth of stuff into a carry-on bag and a purse. Through the program I am in, I get three meals a day and snacks, wi-fi at my house guaranteed and my host mom does my laundry. The food is all very delicious! I’ll tell you more about that in the next post as well!

I live about 25 minutes from my university, at a walking pace. Personally, I prefer to walk because it’s good exercise, it’s free and it allows me to see the city more. I jam out to some music on my walks to and from school every day and it’s my time to enjoy the atmosphere and relax a little bit. 




A stroll down the Calle Mayor, a hub of shops and tapas bars.


My classes??  Funny you asked. Since Geneseo had:

a) limited options for courses

b) limited space in Spanish courses

c) a limited number of tolerable professors

d) classes that had time clashes with other classes I needed

e) strict eligibility prerequisites that happened to require a course I had not yet taken


…I was stuck having to take all requirements for my major while here. That means that I had to carefully choose courses that fit the course descriptions I still needed to graduate. There was no room for me to take electives, which are easier to transfer. Luckily, many of the courses here at Alcalá were ones that would transfer as requirements. Here’s what I needed and the courses I picked to match:

1. Literature elective: Introduction to Latin American Literature

2. Linguistics: Phonetics and Oral Spanish

3. Grammar & Composition: Advanced Spanish

4. Literature survey: Introduction to Spanish Literature

I met with my advisor and head of the languages department to make sure these courses were kosher. She was a huge help throughout the entire process!




Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for—the time where I talk to you about FOOD. I figure that now would be a good time to explain a long-lived tradition in Spain which I just recently had the pleasure of partaking in. I am going to explain this in the best way I can:

In the U.S, people bar-hop every now and then, right? As we all might know, drinks are expensive and if you drink too much without eating, you’ll get sick and/or not feel so well the next day. The Spaniards solved this problem while still allowing people to socialize and bar-hop. With each drink you order, you get a “free” tapa. What is a tapa? Well, it is a small portion of food that goes with the drink and there are many varieties and choices. Some popular options include “bocadillos” (which are small sandwiches), “croquetas de jamón” (fried ham and cheese in dough), “patatas braves” (potatos cut like home-fries in a sauce), tortilla (which is actually and egg and potato omelette), and calamares fritos (fried squid), and mushrooms. Popular choices are anything with seafood, meat dishes and anything fried. At one tapas bar we went to, there was even paella and cheeseburger sliders!


(Top to bottom: pig ears, chicken wings, and fried squid)


Tinto Verano 


However, tapas are not desserts. You won’t find pudding, flan or torta as a tapa! They are rather appetizer-type dishes.

The differences between the U.S. and Spain? The drinking age here is 18 and alcohol isn’t a taboo subject. People seldom drink to get drunk, or binge drink—even at young ages. People drink to socialize and they have it in moderation. From a young age, people are taught to drink responsibly. At many tapas bars I’ve been, parents bring their children! In fact, people of all ages stay out until at least midnight. It’s very common to see children playing at parks at night under parental supervision, walking the streets with family and even having their own tapas (sin alcohol) in the bars with their parents. That part of the culture is much different here. 


Sangria and some papas aji-oli


Enjoying tapas and some good company! 🙂

The best part about tapas? The price! In the U.S, expect to pay anywhere from 3-10 dollars for one single drink at a bar, not including tip or food. In Spain, the price for a tapa and drink usually lingers around €3.00, more or less depending on the establishment. That equals to about $5.00—mind you, this includes food as well and in Spain, you don’t leave a tip! (This concept was hard for me to grasp at first since it had been so ingrained in me to leave tips. You may leave a tip if the service was exceptional, but it is not the norm.)

I’ve gone out for tapas with friends a couple times and it has always been a positive experience. We get to chat and hang out with Spanish people, while taste-testing each other’s dishes. Once we’ve finished, we go to the next place! We normally visit 2-3 places per night, about once or twice a week.

One of the things on the tapas menu was “orejas fritas”. What are orejas? Yes, that’s right—ears. Fried ears. And you know what? I ate one. I think it would’ve been a little better if it were less chewy and more crispy, but hey. I can say I did it. My go-to drink is a sangria (of course!), a tinto de verano (which is basically a sangria) or a caña, a Spanish colloquial term for a small pint of beer. But the best part, I must admit are the tapas!!!


Bocadillos: Little sandwiches


My friend enjoying some paella!



Let’s take a moment to discuss the differences in the Spanish schedule and the American daily routine, specifically when it comes to eating. (Because food is amazing, that’s why.) In the U.S, the average working person wakes up around 6 and eats breakfast then, usually consisting of any mix of eggs, toast, cereal, a muffin, or a donut. Of course, we need our morning coffee or tea! On weekends or some days when we’re really hungry, we may have pancakes, waffles, bacon, ham, sausage, home fries, omelets, etc. Breakfast can be a pretty big meal for us, depending on one’s appetite.

In Spain, the breakfast time is very similar, as most people start work around 8-9. However, eggs are NOT a breakfast food. Yeah, you read that right. Eggs. Are not. A breakfast food. For an egg-lover like me, this was a peculiarity. A typical breakfast for Spaniards is coffee and toast, or coffee and cereal. Sometimes you have fruit with your meal, and my family gives me a mini muffin to eat. Juice, or zumo is also very popular. In Spain, juice is not called jugo! It’s called zumo. The important thing to remember is that breakfast is not a big meal here. It’s rather light, something to give you some energy and hold you over until lunch time.

All right, now for lunch. In Spain, they don’t usually say “almuerzo” when referring to lunch, but rather “la comida”, literally translating as “the meal”. I find this translation fitting, since lunch is literally the meal of the day, as in it is the largest. The time when it is eaten is the strange part for people of other cultures. Instead of eating at 11 or noon, they eat at 2 or 3, sometimes 4 o’clock in the afternoon. This is lunch we’re talking about! My family eats “early”, at about 2:30. That means from the time I eat breakfast (8:00) until the time I eat lunch (2:30), there is a 6.5 hour gap. That translates to me needing a snack in between, usually at about 11:00. I bring an apple, banana or protein bar with me and sometimes I grab a café con leche.

Lunch is Spain’s biggest meal of the day, as it takes place during siesta (which I’ll talk about in the next post!). It is the equivalent to America’s dinner time—the family is together and a homemade dish is prepared. Bread is always eaten with every meal. The family buys a baguette at the store every morning and cuts up slices to have with lunch and dinner. 


Some sopa (soup) and a sliced baguette.

Between lunch and dinner, there is usually a little snack or some coffee around the time where Americans eat dinner, 6:00 pm. Dinner is eaten very late, and it is typically pretty light. From my personal experience, it’s still a homemade meal but not as grand as lunch. Spaniards eat dinner anywhere from 8-11:00pm. My family eats “early”, around 8:30.

For me, this was a huge adjustment! I am an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type of person so eating dinner at the time I usually am getting ready for bed has been an a big change. At home, I go to bed around 9:30-10:00, but here I have been going to bed around 11:00 so I can let the food settle for a little bit.

After dinner, depending on your family, people go out. I swear to you, there are more people on the streets at night than during the day. This is the time when everyone goes to the plaza to hang out, go shopping or grab some drinks. I touched on this a couple paragraphs ago. People stay out very late! Stores are hustling and bustling around 6:00, and the restaurants are vacant at this time. While getting tapas one night, my friends and I commented about this. In America at 6:00, restaurants are at their peak hours—not here!

Some people don’t hit the hay until about 1:00am-4:00am. My family all works or has school in the morning, so they go to bed around 11:00pm. This is considered early.

So there you have it, the typical daily routines and food schedules of a Spaniard!


Before I go, here are some pictures of the area of Alcala:


Las calles son muy estrechas! The streets are very narrow!



Facade of the old college.


One of the many lovely churches in the area



Universidad de Malaga, right next door to Instituto Franklin.



The steps I walk up everyday to get to class.



The Town Hall



So beautiful with the sunset!


Please join me next time as I talk about churros, siesta, foods, besos (kisses), and some more differences between the U.S. and Spain!

¡Hasta luego!



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