First Impressions

It has been 10 days since I arrived in Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, Spain’s smallest autonomous community most famous for its wine. This tiny city with a population of just over 150,000 will be my home for a year as I complete a compulsory in-country study (ICS) as part of my Journalism/International Studies double degree at UTS.

A UTS girl who has recently returned from her ICS described her year on Facebook as a “crazy adventure of ups and downs,” and so far she has hit the nail right on the head.

Leaving loved ones behind has been the biggest “down” yet. After many years of routine and nothing particularly exciting happening in my life, nothing could have prepared me for the emotions I felt leading up to my departure. I was extremely sad to be saying goodbye to my parents for so long, having never been apart from them for more than 2 weeks (and even that was hard). I was scared knowing that I was going to be without them in a city where nobody speaks my native language. I was shocked that this experience that felt like a distant dream for so long was finally happening, and happening fast. But most of all, I was excited. This is the big adventure I’d been waiting for since I decided to forego a gap year after high school, and no matter how terrified I was, I had to do it. When my parents virtually pushed my inconsolable self through the Departures gate, I felt very, very alone. But once I took my seat at the gate and met up with the four other girls also doing their ICS in Logroño, I knew the journey was finally beginning and it was hard not to be thrilled about that.

The transit from Sydney to Logroño is bloody long and I am counting my blessings I won’t be taking that trip until next year. My journey was off to a shaky start when early turbulence on the flight to Dubai caused me to toss my cookies within 10 minutes, only just managing to get it all in the bag. The rest of the flying time was thankfully filled with movies and sleep and before I knew it, we were descending into Madrid. I could not contain my excitement. After spending years scrolling through my friends’ Europe photos on Instagram patiently waiting for my turn, I finally made it there myself! Bouncing in my seat, I got many strange looks from the Spanish couple sitting next to me, who were merely returning home after a holiday. Once my fears of being that one person whose luggage goes missing were proven wrong, we boarded a 4 hour bus ride from Madrid to Logroño.

As soon as we alighted from the bus and the other girls were picked up by their landlord, the novelty of my adventure wore off when I realised I was completely and utterly lost and alone. Firstly, I had a nosebleed. Secondly, I hadn’t bought a Spanish sim card yet so I thought a few Google Maps screenshots I had taken would be enough to get me from the bus station to my apartment, where I was to meet my landlady. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was forced to turn on data roaming and even then I was totally confused by Spanish street names and the apparent lack of street signs. Thirdly, the walk was much longer than I thought and it didn’t help that I was towing my weight in luggage (but I still couldn’t bring myself to regret bringing about 10kg of cosmetics). I was exhausted, cold, hurting, alone and lost in a strange city. I don’t think I have ever hated life more than during that struggle.

When I eventually got to the building, I was basically ready to give up and go back to Sydney. It didn’t help that trying to converse with my landlady proved just how rusty my Spanish was and how difficult it was going to be get around here. She showed me around the old, but charming apartment and I listened to her Spanish the best I could, but could only understand bits and pieces. Probably my most embarrassing miscommunication to date is when I attempted to ask her for her number and confused numero with nombre, meaning that after months of email communication and spending an hour with her just now, my landlady thought I didn’t know her name. After she left and I was connected to WiFi, the excitement reemerged. I couldn’t believe I was finally sitting in the room I had only seen in pictures before I chose it for my accommodation.

Here is the first photo I took in my lovely, homey habitación that has been passed down through many generations of UTS Logroño girls.

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The next day was Epiphany/Three Kings Day, a major public holiday in Spain. I woke up in darkness (even though it was 9am) and realised I had zero food on me and that if nothing was open, I could potentially starve to death. Thankfully, there was an open bakery nearby, and I put my Spanish to the test and successfully acquired pastries for the day. I apologised for my poor Spanish but when the lady said “muy bien español”, I was in a much happier mood.

I spent the day unpacking and the girls arranged to meet at the “big blue Christmas tree on Av. de la Paz” later that night. Again, I thought a few screenshots of maps would get me there, but of course I was heading in the complete wrong direction. This experience seriously has me wondering how anyone got around before smartphones and Google Maps. But after I eventually got to my destination half an hour late and in a poisonous mood, I found that the “big blue Christmas tree” was worth the wild goose chase. Logroño definitely knows how to do Christmas.

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As a bonus, my first glass of La Rioja wine was waiting at the end of that debacle, and it turned out to be a great first taste of Logroño nightlife.

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Once I got my sim card and a basic idea of the streets surrounding my apartment, I was feeling slightly less terrified to head out from the confines of my warm piso. But this. city. is. COLD.

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I knew European winters were cold, but I was not expecting to nearly break my neck on my second day after slipping on ice. I can only say that when I return to Sydney winters, I will be wearing shorts and T-shirts, because a low of 14 degrees celsius is child’s play.

The worst thing about the cold is it makes enjoying Spain’s famously good nightlife difficult, and that’s not just because it’s impossible to look cute when you have to wear thermals underneath your clothes.

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Calle Laurel is famous for their pinchos (you might call them tapas) and wine. One place, Blanco y Negro came highly recommended by the girls who preceded us so we decided to check it out. I had a delicious pincho of bruschetta with jamón (Spanish ham which is more like a delicious combination of ham, bacon and prosciutto), queso de cabre (goat’s cheese) and frambuesa (raspberry marmalade that doesn’t sound like it should make sense with the dish, but it totally does). Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of my pincho because a compulsory part of a Calle Laurel trip is standing and drinking outside, since the insides of the bars are always packed. I froze my way through the night, unable to enjoy it because I felt like I was dying. Since then, I have learnt my lesson and I never go out with less than 4 layers. Looking good will just have to wait for the warmer months.

Another tough lesson I have learnt is how totally spoilt I am at home.

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Seriously, how do you adult? I spent the first few days having a panic attack because I hadn’t met any of my roommates – my supply of clean underwear was diminishing and I needed someone to show me how to use the ancient washing machine. After I washed my clothes, I nearly fell off my tiny balcony trying to set up a clothes horse there to dry my clothes since there’s no dryer. I’ve since learnt that my clothes have no hope of drying in this weather and it’s better to hang them up in various places in my room instead. Feeding myself is also proving to be a challenge. I’ve been trying to resist the delicious but heavy food available in cafes by having cereal for breakfast and snacking on celery and carrot sticks, but I nearly burnt the piso down when I tried to cook for myself…and I mean boil pasta. If I gain nothing else from this trip, I will at least have some idea how to survive when it’s time for me to stop mooching off my parents. I will also have a greater appreciation for everything they do for me, since having nobody to baby you and having to grocery shop, cook for yourself, wash your own clothes and take out the rubbish is no fun at all.

Because of homesickness, time differences, the cold, the unfamiliarity and the general shock of actually having to live like a 21 year old, around this time last week I was feeling quite sad. As much as I was looking forward to breaking my routine in Sydney, I missed knowing how everything worked, where everything was and having my parents and friends close by. I missed not having to mentally prepare myself to talk to locals, and not feeling like an idiot after I do. Most of all, I audibly hissed with envy at Australian friends on social media complaining about the summer when there were very few people I wouldn’t kill to feel warmth on my skin. However, I knew things would get better once I started my intensive Spanish course at the Universidad de la Rioja and had more to fill my days with, and I was right.

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Granted, the start of university was rocky. On Orientation Day, the importance of punctuality was made very clear even to those of us with very little Spanish. If we were more than 10 minutes late, we would not be permitted to enter the class and our grades would suffer horribly. We were told to arrive at 8.30am sharp the next day, so I set my alarm for 6am so I would have plenty of time. Somewhere between eating breakfast and browsing the Internet, I got it in my head that I didn’t need to be there until 9am, so I was wondering why I had so much time. It was 8.30am when I decided I should leave, and as I was putting my coat on I realised what I had done and nearly went into cardiac arrest. I thought, if I got a taxi now I wouldn’t be too late, so I rushed outside…then spent 10 minutes banging on my door to wake my roommates after realising I had forgotten my keys. When I got to the taxi rank, it was empty. At this point it was 8.45am and I wondered if there was any point turning up today, or rather, if there was any point continuing with ICS since everything I touched turned to disaster. Eventually I decided to pull through and I called the taxi number and burbled frantically into the phone. I don’t think I spoke Spanish or even English really, but luckily a taxi arrived within minutes. He dropped me outside a building I had never seen before. It was 8.55am. I was completely lost, 25 minutes late and I was not looking forward to the consequences. However, by some miracle, the first building I walked into was the exact one I needed to be in and I hadn’t missed anything. Yep, not even I can attract that much bad luck.

Since then I have been very much on time and I absolutely love my kooky Spanish teacher Ricardo and my small class of other international students, who have come from countries including Thailand, China, Switzerland, Brazil, Japan and Korea. In these classes, there’s no in-depth explaining of the complicated grammar in English, as occurred in my Spanish classes at UTS. Electronic devices are banned, so I get very lost sometimes without SpanishDict.com. However, everything is very practical and fun. I know a few more weeks of this intensity will have me feeling much more comfortable in my new environment.

The food available at the cafeteria, and every other cafe in Spain, is another definite plus.

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Tortilla con patatas and bocatitas are breakfast and lunch staples here, about 1-2€ each. The tortilla is an egg and potato omelette-type dish always served with fresh baguette and bocatitas are tiny sandwiches always filled with something delicious like revueltos (scrambled eggs with cheese and various veggies) or chorizo.

The local cuisine has definitely been a major “up” in this experience. It’s cheap and delicious, and I am prepared to book myself an entire row on the plane home to accommodate the size I will be after a year. However, I noticed that foreign food is seldom available, and when it is, it’s much more expensive. Ricardo explained that with the exception of Madrid and Barcelona, most cities in Spain are still living the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship through the emphasis on Spain’s local products. From the food I’ve tasted so far, I don’t think I’m going to have any problem with that.

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Yesterday I had my first churros experience and I was both shocked and delighted to learn that the standard churro in its native country is about the size of a human head. Dinner later that night started with mysterious shots of a liquid that was revealed to be a sort of mushroom sauce, very pleasing to the palate before my cuttlefish with onion, garlic, broccoli and olive oil. After living off pasta and sometimes foregoing dinner entirely because I’m afraid of what I will do in the kitchen, it was truly an excellent dinner.

Of course, good food and wine would be nothing without people to enjoy it with. With communication with locals being extremely difficult, I can’t imagine where I’d be without the other girls doing their ICS in Logroño this year. Being away from home has been even harder than I imagined and I am counting my blessings every day the people sharing this adventure with me are so wonderful. We came here as strangers and 10 days in, we already feel like family. We’ve shared secrets, fears, hopes, woes and are getting closer every day. We’re all in this crazy whirlwind experience together and it’s very comforting to know we can lean on each other through the “downs” and celebrate with each other through the “ups.”

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My current hangover is proof of the excellent night I had with these ladies last night, a big “up” for sure. The details are blurry, but below I am pictured being the happiest I’ve been since I arrived here, and not just because I was 5 glasses of wine deep. If you ever plan on coming to Logroño, I should warn you now that a vodka naranja (vodka orange) in this city means 4 shots of vodka, some unknown fizzy substance and a splash of orange juice in a giant glass, all for about 2€. It’s going to be a large adjustment from $9 watered down vodka lime sodas at Sydney nightclubs to actually getting value for my money (and expected not to be tragic every time I drink as per Spanish drinking norms), but I will take that challenge.

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So to summarise, it has most definitely been “a crazy adventure of ups and downs.” I still miss my parents and life in Sydney more than I can describe. Sometimes I think of how long I have to go and question if I’m really up to this. But every day I’m learning something new and getting to know this beautiful city better. Every successful interaction with a local is a little win, as is every load of washing I do and every time I prepare food without injuring myself and others. Above all, the girls I’m here with are a reminder that even though I feel lonely sometimes, I am not alone. There’s still many obstacles to overcome such as successfully getting a residency card, starting regular university classes and right now I would kill for a stir fry but cannot locate any decent Asian cooking ingredients. But figuring these things out doesn’t seem as daunting as they did this time last week. It also helps that the cold has me looking ahead to the summer and I have already booked my first TopDeck tour to Greece, which I am beyond excited for.

It hasn’t been una caminata en el parque, but I’m right where I need to be. Bring on more ups and downs.