It was the day before I left for my journey to Europe. All summer, I had been mentally preparing myself. I was going to live in a small Spanish city for four months, attend a university in which no one spoke English and try to do it successfully.
After finally accepting that I would be going without Chick-fil-A for an entire semester (something I had never done before ... deep breaths, Julia), I became excited to try new foods and discover a different hangover cure (which had been the No. 1 on the value menu for two years). I packed my leather jacket and boots and left behind my jean jacket and Red Sox hat. I was determined to fit in and I would dress, speak and act the part. I did not want to be what the Univeristy of Richmond prepared us not to be: an Ugly American.
I thought back to my long progression to reaching that point. All in all, the Richmond study abroad application process was great. They helped us with anything and all that we needed, and organized it well. But what I quickly learned once I got to Spain was that no pamphlet or info session could prepare a 20-year-old girl to live in a country very different from her own.
I immediately missed Wal-Mart and Sheetz. What slightly frightened me was that the speakers at the study abroad orientation last April prepared us by explaining everything we shouldn't do. "Don't wear your Greek letter shirts on Fridays," "DON'T travel alone," and my personal favorite, "Don't bring home any souvenirs that you can't give back." I wasn't exactly planning on getting pregnant, Richmond, but thanks for the heads up.
Mostly people have welcomed Americans here with open arms, yet there are times when we get blank stares because we've used the wrong Spanish vocabulary. My first night here I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some fruit. I hadn't eaten anything healthy in two days because the chicken on the plane was a mix of dark meat and yellow flesh, and the airport vending machines only had an array of Cheeto-like-snacks and Kinder bars (delicious by the way).
What I didn't realize after putting the oranges down at the register was that I had to weigh them first at the fruit weigh station. I wanted to tell the clerk that I was embarrassed. "Estoy embarazada," I said. She gave me a disgusted look, laughed and whispered "Ayy, Americana." How rude! I took my bags, left the oranges and walked home feeling defeated. I quickly whipped out my Spanish-English dictionary and lo and behold, I had told the woman I was pregnant. That brought me right back to that orientation.
My first few days in San Sebastian were a bit overwhelming, slightly embarrassing and all in all incredible. I studied the Spanish girls walking the streets, wearing thick scarves and cool leather boots in 75-degree weather. "I can do that!" I thought. Oh, but the profuse sweating when meeting new people made things slightly awkward. So, I went back to wearing tank tops and stored the scarves for the winter months.
The next life lesson in Spain was the process of meeting new people. The Spanish university here separates the international students into intensive Spanish classes to prepare them for the "real" Spanish classes with the "real Spanish students" that would begin two weeks later. Because I was going to take my journalism and communications classes in Spanish, this was great for me. It was also good to get to know the other international students. They hailed from all over Europe: Italy, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium. What they all had in common was that they spoke at least three languages, listened to crazy Euro Techno music and were rail-thin.
But what I liked most about these new friends was they all had a good sense of who they were, and a deep appreciation for their cultures. Juliette is a 6-foot tall Dutch model who rocks Birkenstocks daily and smokes two packs a day. Blair is a crazy Scotsman who has more pride in his country than anyone I've ever met. He wears a green plaid Scottish kilt that resembles my Catholic high school uniform and likes to think he sounds like Gerard Butler to the American girls. If we close our eyes hard enough, he does. Then there's Paolo, the passionate Italian. He epitomizes just about every stereotype of Italian men that exists. He walks by yelling "Ciao Bellas!" to the girls while wearing soccer jerseys, jean capri pants and a man-bag, and we love him for it.
Though it was fun learning how to say swears in eight different languages, the other students, along with the Spaniards, loved to hear what we Americans had to say as well. Every time my roommate, Hannah Benabdallah, introduced herself to a new person, his or her automatic reaction would be: "Hannah Montana! ?Como estas?"
Julianne Mulhall, another roommate, constantly has to explain why her English is slightly different than the others'. "I'm from Laawwng Island, New Yowahk," she says. But first prize for hardest name pronunciation goes to Blaike Ford, a fellow Spider here. A typical Spanish conversation between Blaike and a Spaniard is:
- "Hola, soy Blaike."
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- "No, Blaike, con una 'B.'"
- "Ohhhhh Blayte."
After the 10th time, she gave up and usually just goes by "Rubia" (blond girl).
We Americans slowly became more comfortable with the other "internationals" and finally gave in to our American ways. We showed them the best Lil Wayne songs to download and explained to them that not everyone has a "Super Sweet 16" like on MTV. When I told a girl from Holland that my 16th birthday consisted of pasta and movies with my friends and family, she seemed shocked. "You didn't get a Hummer for your birthday like they do on TV?" In her defense, though, the only impression I had of Holland was Austin Powers as "Goldmember." Pathetic, I know.
Just as we appreciated them for their cultures, and for their personalities, we too felt as if we could do the same. Yes, they joked about us being "typical Americans," but it was all in good fun. Juliette rocked her Birkenstocks, so I shouldn't have been too ashamed to wear my Frye boots in a foreign country. It was all about balancing how to learn the new ways of the Spanish culture while still being true to my own.
So yes, being an Ugly American is often an ugly thing. For instance, if you travel abroad not knowing the political situation of the country that you plan to visit, then you deserve to be made fun of. Don't walk around Paris with a Bush-Cheney '04 T-shirt because it's not the best idea. But the important thing to remember is that we are studying abroad to learn the culture. We are not on vacation. We LIVE here, for an entire semester. So don't be too afraid of the stigma. If you show interest in other people's cultures, then they will often reciprocate.
As long as you don't walk around a crowded European street with a polo shirt, khakis, boat shoes and Ray Bans with croakies (no offense KAs) while fist pumping to a Bruce Springsteen song on your iPod, you'll be fine. Relax, go with the flow and try to learn the culture without losing your sense of self. Because being a poser is often worse than being an Ugly American.
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