While an undergrad at UW, I spent one eye-opening semester abroad on the Madrid, Spain program and then remained there that summer. My UW Spanish courses, including seminars in 20th-century literature and on Pérez Galdós, gave me a solid grounding in Spanish culture, history, lifestyle, politics, and even pronunciation. Living abroad is always very different from an academic setting, but I discovered my heart was in Madrid and with all the people of Spain, so after completing my degree at UW Madison, I moved back to Madrid, where I already had friends and had left my heart. I knew I could find work teaching English and my Spanish skills were already better than most foreigners living in Spain.
Before long, I was fully immersed in Spanish life, and even completed a two-year MA program in translation through the Universidad Complutense, mostly because I love languages and because it could bring more reliable work than English language teaching. I have to admit, though, my exposure to all sorts of people from all walks of life while teaching meant I had spent a great deal of time getting to understand everyone from politicians working in the Ministries, to students preparing exams to join European Union positions, finance execs who had participated in the World Olympics to military officials who had worked for the UN. And everything in between! I went to work at Vogue Magazine’s main office; even when I tried, I was certainly the worst dressed and least accessorized there! I went to work at the Madrid Stock Exchange and admired the original architecture and built-in furniture.
Ambling the streets of Madrid is probably where and when I did most of the growing and maturing in my life. Living abroad for over twelve years certainly gave me a lot of experience working and dealing with people from around the world and being flexible enough to accept and adapt to other ways of life.
One of the high points of my time living abroad was when I got to go film Pedro Almodóvar. That’s right, a girl who can barely take a decent photograph, I’m the one pulled in at the last minute when CNN needs an extra cameraman for an exclusive interview with Almodóvar and Spanish actress Leonor Watling, who were going to lead the protests and speak at the anti-war demonstration in downtown Madrid against the Iraq war. Carrying a camera half the size of my body, I’m taxied to Almodóvar’s film studio, which was as colorful and eclectic as his films! His presence is much larger than when you see him on film or in pics, and so is his head. ;) He was amazingly kind and funny, and pretended not to realize how much I was shaking when I introduced myself to him and told him how much I love his films. (That’s it? That’s the most complimentary and original thing I can think of telling him? Ah well.) And yes, I made it through the hour and a half interview as a faux-cameramen, filming the man who’s usually behind the camera! Apparently the footage came out great, too. At CNN they said I was a natural and it looked like pro work. Who would have known it?
After years in Madrid, I felt I needed a change and moved on to Barcelona, another city where I made some more of the most amazing friends on earth, where I’ve left part of my heart as well, and enjoyed some of the most delightful cuisine and farm-fresh produce around. Barcelona has got to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world (and most expensive! gulp!), but even after living there five years and being able to understand, read, and joke around in Catalán, I was still more madrileña. Along the way I’d also studied and mastered Portuguese, and I’m grateful to this day that I can listen to the radio and understand lyrics to tropicalia music effortlessly. What joy! My time in Spain also allowed me to develop my own interests and come to appreciate what I love and want to be doing with my life.
Today, I’m back in the US, working on a PhD at UT Austin. I’m not studying Spanish or Romance languages anymore, although it still comes in handy. Just this past year I read a portion of an original first-edition 17th century account written by a Spaniard (Navarrete) while traveling in India. Finally, my having read Quijote cover to cover was put to some practical use, and I could see where the only English translation done of this travelogue had some flubs. I also saw plenty of worm-eaten pages that went through layers of folios.
All my experiences were initiated in the Spanish and Portuguese department, where I was started by simply getting my language requirement fulfilled and back credits for advanced language placement. In the end, I hadn’t even majored in Spanish for my BA at UW, but it certainly looks like I majored in Spanish for life!