Smile Like You Mean It: How to Make Spanish Friends
I am just starting my second semester in Spain at the University of Murcia and it has been so much fun. I can’t say that it necessarily started out that way though. The school system here is a world apart from what I am used to at a liberal arts college in the States, so that definitely took some getting used to. I don’t think it would be too far-fetched to say that one of the only similarities between the school system in the Sates and in Spain is the operative word, school. There are classes involved and learning, but other than that…well, as I said it took some getting used to. University here is five years instead of four. Attendance is not taken and you can buy the notes (I did not just give away a major secret by the way–my professors were the ones who told me about it), so actually going to class is pretty much not necessary. I do, in fact, attend because if I didn’t, then why did I fly all the way over here? Also, you never know what else a professor might say, I would get really bored otherwise, and finally, I really am just a huge nerd like that.
In Spain, students choose their majors in high school and they start studying that subject then, and already have all the basic background information before starting university. This, ostensibly, allows for more in-depth analyzing. Because the students start specializing so early in their careers, this naturally lends itself toward a very close-knit classroom in general, but there is one more level that is really the kicker. Once you have chosen your major, not only do you start studying it in high school, but you also start studying it with the exact same people.
Spanish university students: a) go to the university nearest to their hometown, so they basically already know everyone by the time they enter school and b) even if they didn’t already know their classmates, everyone studying the same subject sits in the exact same classroom with the exact same people, every day. Meaning, first-year history students spend the majority of their time only with other first-year history students, and fifth-year lit students only with other-fifth year lit students, and I think you get the idea. On top of all of that…your whole grade rests upon one final exam.
Basically, my first day of school in Spain was my biggest nightmare about studying abroad come true. I did not think I was going to be able to make friends, plus I am a horrible test taker. Luckily, my negative attitude was quickly countered by the fact that once classes got underway and everything had settled into a routine, the Spanish students smiled at me each morning when I walked into class. We didn’t necessarily talk, more of just an “hola, buenas días” type thing, but it’s amazing how much being acknowledged boosted my confidence. Thus, my first lesson in Spain: don’t be afraid to smile at your fellow students. Simple? Yes, or at least in theory anyhow. As it turns out, I am not the only person who has this issue. Literally all of my friends, who are also foreign exchange students went through the same experiences. Regardless of how outgoing you are, it’s similar to the proverbial blob of girls at the middle school dance that scares the boys away from speaking to or asking one of them out.
Apparently, a classroom full of people who have studied together for their entire lives leads to a very scared Sarah. Thus, my second lesson in Spain: talk to one person at a time. Once again, simple in theory. Just as I was at the end of my “I’m never going to have any friends” rope, I was standing outside class one day and I noticed that a classmate was wearing a t-shirt from my college in the States.
I go to a really small school, so it wasn’t as if he were wearing a shirt from Harvard or UCLA or something like that. I thought about just letting it be, however my curiosity (and/or desperation) pushed me to open my mouth and ask him about the shirt. As it turns out, he did his study abroad the year before at my school and we knew a lot of the same people. As I soon discovered, the mere act of initiating a conversation allowed me to break into not only a friendship with him, but also with most of the rest of the students in the class as he introduced me around. So basically, to quote one of my favorite bands, the Killers, “smile like you mean it” and as much I hate putting myself in potentially awkward situations, initiate the conversation.