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Study abroad: ditch your LSAT for el cerveza

A perfect break from Toronto, despite Granada’s subpar oranges
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Granada is known for its agriculture — especially its rolling hills of citrus. SUNNIVA BEAN/THE VARSITY
Granada is known for its agriculture — especially its rolling hills of citrus. SUNNIVA BEAN/THE VARSITY

When I arrived in Granada, Spain, the city was as beautiful as it had appeared during my many anticipatory Google Maps searches. I did the standard exchange student clichés — I watched the sunset over the Alhambra and drank wine in plazas filled with flamenco dancers.

The only disappointment was the oranges that had looked heavenly in photos but tasted like acidic garbage. Granada was just as charming and deceiving as the inedible, ornamental fruit trees that made the city so quaint.

At 21, it was my first time in Spain. I could only follow about half of the iconic Andalusian dialect of Spanish, and quickly became a pro at asking related questions when I could not remember the correct vocabulary. I’d easily get lost and flustered in conversations, asking the locals to repeat themselves again and again.

I spent my first meals reading books beside people chatting over beers and eating their three-euro falafels on park benches. I learned that language can’t translate directly because the meanings embedded in vocabulary change too. Even while speaking in varied levels of Spanish and English, the context of our idioms were not always shared.

My city, Toronto, meant skyscrapers and a bedroom on the 15th floor. The culture was a mosaic of ethnic fragments: Chinatown and Little Italy stretching through grubby neon streets; ’50s style mansions that were split into student apartments; brisk colourful falls that faded into endless harrowingly cold winters.

I’ve come to learn that their city, Granada, means medieval mazes of narrow cobblestone streets overlooking the Sierra Nevada. Midday siesta breaks leaving only bars open, and a free tapa with each two-euro beer. Spring bringing its weeklong fiestas, and summers too hot to stand. Phrases like ‘no pasa nada’ and ‘me da igual’ told me to relax, often without an exact English translation.

I moved into a house with 12 roommates from all over the world: Italy, Germany, France, Bulgaria, England, Belgium, Morocco, and more. We had two bathrooms and one narrow but well-equipped kitchen.

Located right downtown, the house was rumoured to have once been a brothel, but for the past three decades it has been home to international students. The house invited you to add to the clutter that was already present.

The large roof terrace was filled with graffiti of giraffes, palm trees, trippy faces, and political stencils. This art decorated the three floors. Umbrellas and giant paper monkeys hung on strings, costume pieces, toys, and furniture were scattered throughout. Every wall had stickers and posters stuck to it. CDs hung like disco balls. There were hundreds of plastic roses stuck into every crevice possible: the showers and door frames, in bottles, between pipes, and in our hair for music festivals.

I moved in on a Tuesday morning. A new roommate offered me a drag of his cigarette as he welcomed me. There was a red glow as you entered due to a lampshade that had been repurposed from a water jug, which glared down with an ominous face if you happened to look up.

Another roommate said that the food left on one counter — stews and leftover vegetable dishes — was to share, a trend that continued for the rest of the year. A trippy collage covered my closet and my bed was bare aside from a bright orange sheet and pink wig.

In my Toronto high-rise apartment, visitors had to check in. I once received a noise complaint at 10:15 pm and was informed that a second would result in a $300 fine. Opposingly, in this home backpackers commonly slept on our roof, which was equipped with six mattresses; we once adopted a group of travellers after a roommate met a man sleeping in a tent.

He’d been part of a German forest protest movement which made houses in trees too high to evict during their battle against giant timber companies and police. So, he spent the next month sleeping on our roof. In Granada they lived with anarchist rules: scavenging supplies, sharing objects, and making decisions communally. The treehouses were as ‘treehousey’ as you might imagine, strung together with wooden plank bridges to create a city among pits of destroyed forest remains.

A couple of weeks in, his friend joined. We searched through trash using a homemade map which detailed the hours that bakeries usually put out their slightly stale leftovers, them in their usual rugged outdoor look, me in a skirt and a touch of lipstick.

Friends joined from Denmark, Netherlands, and France, and played music and returned from the weekly food market with overflowing baskets of discarded tomatoes, artichokes, grapes, and chirimoya, not quite at the point of moulding. But eventually the number of people stretched the home’s limits and they continued on their travels.

In Toronto, university dominated my schedule. On weekends, I indulged in studying in cafés, sacrificed sleep for debate tournaments, and got beer after studying Weber’s protestant work ethic. During the exchange, classes were all pass or fail, which gave me plenty of free time.

Exchange students had known a sleeping bag and tent were mandatory for the many free outdoor trips. Once, I was awoken at 7:00 am an told that we were going to climb the two tallest mountains on the peninsula.

That night we slept entirely alone in a remote cabin, high within the Sierra Nevada. The only other life forms were small goats that camouflaged well with the rocky rubble, which was still blanketed with snow despite it being June. We hiked and hitchhiked down to free raves in a valley and slept between olive trees strung with fairy lights. We didn’t bring enough food, so we spent Sunday eating oranges off of the trees between our tents.

At university I felt plagued by my discomfort with Spanish. It was frustrating and embarrassing to approach classmates and not understand their rapid reply — it was easier to not invite that confusion.

This made me deeply grateful for students who helped me navigate the intricacies of the language.

One classmate offered me all of her notes if the course went too fast. She was stern and not particularly friendly, but was unceasingly helpful, continuing to check in when I had too much shame to keep asking. A classmate from China could not understand anything in Spanish or English, yet continuously greeted me with the warmest ‘hellos’; we were friends by virtue of being foreigners.

A month in, I switched into a toxicology class to fulfil a science credit requirement. I hoped that I would be as anonymous as I was in U of T’s lecture halls. But alas, my second-year cohort of 25 students took every class together, and they noticed a redheaded American often arriving a few minutes late, covered in clay as she sped from a sculpting class.

They thought I was in the wrong place for weeks, the professor repeating that this was not sociology, and me repeating that I was there intentionally, although I had no knowledge of toxicology. I was once surprised to discover the class in lab-mode, mixing bright liquids in uniformly white lab coats and goggles; whereas I was running late, coffee in hand, wearing ripped black jeans and a leather jacket.

As the months passed, I relaxed into Spanish and discovered people who had previously been distanced from me by language barriers. Speaking Spanish was not so daunting — mistakes were usually funny rather than shameful. I didn’t feel so foreign when I was acquainted with the local cashiers. I hoped to come across the Parisian architecture student as he smoked outside the popular alternative bar. Even discovering that I was in his web of flings gave life and emotion to this city. I had stayed long enough to become intertwined in their intricate social relations.

I did not feel as foreign as I adapted to their standards of femininity. I was initially surprised at my four female flatmates’ lack of makeup, but when I moved out, I discarded my untouched beauty products. When I applied the eyeliner I’d worn at home, it made me look foreign.

The semester’s end meant the termination of my undergraduate degree. I hadn’t made a concrete plan for afterward, so I found myself the last in a city swamped in heat. I spent the next month walking across the north of Spain on an ancient pilgrimage, reflecting on the end of my studies and the beginning of my independence.

A pilgrim follows arrows into the unknown, with their life carried on their back. This removes their usual rhythm and domain, altering their relationship with time and space. By joining them, you join the pilgrims of the past millennium who’ve removed themselves from normalcy in order to walk in pursuit of answers.

Here, I considered what ‘home’ would mean next. My Canadian study visa expired along with my identity as a student, and I’d not committed to the renewal’s requirements. The years when I’d considered the US my home felt forever ago, though I’ll always be met with expectations about what it means to be American.

I accepted a job to write remotely, and my Irish passport made the options seem limitless. When I reached Santiago, I derailed my family’s expectations that the year would be spent on law school applications. Exchange and my wacky house had inspired greater dedication to painting and writing with the ample time that Granada always seems to have. So, seven months after my study abroad, Granada, so charming and cheap, has become my home.