Well, it’s Boxing Day, everyone! That means, of course…well, not much, given that I live in the United States and not the United Kingdom or Canada. Still, it was a nice day to relax, watch more television than I should have, contemplate the feast of Saint Stephen for a bit, and put off my preparations for studying abroad.
Speaking of studying abroad: congratulations (or condolences, depending on your point of view)! You’ve found the first post about my semester abroad. I’ll be living and studying in Toledo, Spain, about 73 kilometers (or 45 miles for us Imperial-system-using Americans) southwest of Madrid, from January 14 to April 28. Toledo gets its names from the Romans, who called it Toletum after conquering it in 190 CE. The city became the capital of the region (Hispania) in the 500s. In the 700s, Muslim armies from North Africa conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and established a tolerant rule under which culture, technology, and science flourished. For centuries in Spain and Toledo especially, Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived peacefully together and built churches, mosques, and synagogues that remain today, along with many other architectural and artistic treasures. Due to its great wealth of architecture, history, and culture, Toledo earned the name “the city of the three cultures” and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.For those of you unacquainted with the city, here’s a picturesque photo.
I’m a student of Saint Norbert College; the program is run through the University of Minnesota and the Fundación Ortega-Marañon; and my classes will be held in the San Juan de la Penitencia residence, a former convent built in the sixteenth century, in the heart of Toledo: there are quite a few institutions involved in my jaunt across the pond! I’ll be living with a host family just a few kilometers north of the city for the duration of my studies. In addition to my classes in Spanish, living with a Spanish family will (I hope!) allow me to speak, listen to, read, and write Spanish better than I do now.
Following the example of my friend Sarah, who will also be studying abroad in Lille, France (read her blog!), I’ll give you a brief snapshot of what I’m looking forward to, what I’m anxious about, and what some of my plans are for the semester.
I am very excited to return to Europe. I visited the Norbertine abbey of Grimbergen outside of Brussels, Belgium, for two weeks two years ago as part of a research trip. Living in Europe beyond a fortnight will be quite the change, but I am eager for it! Speaking a language other than English in everyday life is usually a point of concern for students studying abroad, but I am actually looking forward to it. I love the different vocabularies and idioms of languages, and I know (and have been told numerous times) that the first few days and even weeks will be difficult. My biggest concerns are understanding the different dialects in Iberian Spanish (particularly the lisp given to “c”s in Catalan) and using the vosotros form of verbs, which is uncommon in New World Spanish. Finally, I am simply ebullient over the history of the area in which I will soon be living. As noted above, Toledo is a UNESCO World Heritage site; it is a city with a long past that one can see every day and everywhere. European history is the major emphasis of my history major, so being immersed in it for four months is a major blessing for me!
Now on to my fears: My biggest is that I simply will not know how to function while abroad, especially regarding traveling within Europe. I am sure it is mostly irrational, but it’s still there. I am also uneasy about living with a new family. I have heard great things about my host family and know that these families are almost always supportive, generous, and hospitable; I’m sure this family is, too. At the same time, I am a socially awkward person who has trouble starting and maintaining a conversation in English, let alone in Spanish. This will be a great opportunity for me to get out of my shell, but, like most great opportunities, it will be scary. Finally, I’ll have the constant background fear of losing something out of what I’ll bring to Europe. I know it will happen, but I hope it will be something relatively small and unimportant (please let it just be a toothbrush!).
While I’m in Toledo, I hope to get to know the city very well, not only to avoid getting lost in its labyrinthine streets but also to more deeply appreciate its history and culture. Within Spain, I would like to visit Madrid, the Alhambra in Granada (such amazing architecture!), La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Compostela and the end of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, and at least one city’s Semana Santa (Holy Week celebrations. In Europe, I hope to return to Brussels and Grimbergen (and have some waffles and speculoos, of course!), to visit Dublin and other areas of Ireland, to attend a Mass at the Vatican in Rome, and to get a glimpse of Prague (the city just draws me, for some reason). We’ll see if I get to do all of this! Mainly, I just want to live day by day and enter the moments that come my way as God calls and enables me to enter them.
What does all this have to do with Boxing Day, other than the obvious fact that I am writing this post on it? Not much, I must admit–at least literally. Metaphorically, on the other hand, this holiday has caused me to think of all the boxes in which I live and with which I categorize the world and people around me. Boxes and labels are comfortable, especially for a neatnik like me who is also averse to taking risks. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past two-and-a-half years, however, it’s that 1) “Premonstratensians” is the official name for the Norbertine Order (I go to St. Norbert College, after all) and 2) labels and boxes can be used to constrict, demean, and oppress oneself and others. I’ve been trying to break out of and see outside of boxes more over the past months. I have made progress, but it has been and will be a long road, one that I’ll have to travel my whole life.
My semester abroad will be another stage in that journey, one that will, I hope, allow me to more easily live beyond boxes and as myself, in connection with, not isolation from, myself, others, and God. I will change, but, then again, everything will change–not only in the next semester, but even in the next minute and next second. What remains always is God’s love: dynamic and eternal, stable and invigorating, complete and overflowing.
Well, that’s about it from me for now, everyone. Thanks for bearing with me through this post; I know it’s long and probably a bit dry! I hope to post weekly while I’m abroad with photos and descriptions of my travels and experiences, and I’ll try to be true to what happens without being overly romantic or cynical. Again, thanks for reading everyone, and happy Boxing Day!