First Impressions, Culture Shock, and Activities!

photo 2aa

I snapped this photo while walking around some of the less traveled side streets of Barcelona.

¡Hola Amigos!

In this blog entry I discuss pre-departure anxieties, first impressions, cultural differences and some of the things I’ve started doing here in Barcelona!

Pre-Departure Anxieties

The build up to leaving the country for the first time was a bit nerve-wracking. However, the anxiety was different because I wasn’t simply going away for a week or two, I was leaving for 3 months. I was going to live with people I don’t know, in a place I’ve never been and to function in a language and culture I barely understand.

Was I excited? Absolutely. But to say I had no reservations or doubts would be a lie. Even still, there is a certain level of anxiety. My Spanish has been improving at light speed compared to the progress I made in Idaho – but I’m still a novice. On top of that, my Catalan is even worse, which complicates matters in Barcelona, particularly with this uprising of independence from Spain – but I can talk about that another time.

First Impressions

Upon arriving in Barcelona, probably the first thing to hit me was how humid it was everywhere. The airport was hot and humid; outside was hot and humid, it was impossible to escape. I remember thinking that there was no way I could survive this for three months.

Luckily however, it turns out that I happened to arrive in a sort of unseasonable hot and humid week. The temperatures have since fallen a bit and the humidity has also subsided some. In general, I find the weather to now be most enjoyable day and night.

Somewhat related to weather conditions is the notion of fashion. Prior to departure I had read that in Spain, for the most part, men do not wear shorts. However, Barcelona is the outlier (probably because it so cosmopolitan and internationalized). Unfortunately, due to my pre-conceived notions based on what I read, I only brought one pair of shorts with me….and several pairs of pants.

Furthermore, my efforts to appear as little like a tourist as possible were futile because Barcelona is literally a tourist town. It receives eight million visitors a year, 70% of whom are from outside Spain. This does, however, make for interesting metro rides. I’m likely to hear Catalan, Mandarin, Spanish, Farsi, English and German in a single trip across town.


There are many bus tours happening in Barcelona all the time.

Speaking of languages, my primary concern in Barcelona is the fact that while it is part of Spain, the region is known as Catalonia, and this region has its own distinct language that sounds and looks more like French than Spanish. Catalan is still a minority language compared to Spanish, but there has been significant momentum by the Catalan government and education system to re-instate it as the primary language. Most everywhere you could visit has Catalan listed first, Spanish second, and if you’re lucky, English.


These signs are all over the underground metro system. No fumeu is Catalan, No fumar is Spanish.

I bring this up because my pre-departure research suggested that Catalan was only spoken by 45%of the population and even less of the population knew how to read and write it. So I didn’t expect it to be as predominant as it actually is.

Cultural Differences

Being over five thousand miles away from home, in a place with many more millenniums of history and culture, there are bound to be a few things different from Lewiston, Idaho.

First and foremost, water usage. Here in Barcelona, water is conserved at a great level. People are greener than in the States. People here take shorter showers and they never let the water run. For example, in the States when you shower, it’s typical to be in the shower for 10-15 minutes with the water running the entire time. In Spain, not only do showers not exceed 7 minutes, you actually turn the water off while you’re soaping your hair and body, only turning it back on to rinse (which actually makes more sense than leaving it running if you think about it). Furthermore, all toilets are equipped with the big and small flush option. I don’t think I need to elaborate much more than that.


Another cultural difference is the general wealth equality and social system. Spain is a capitalist liberal democracy just like the United States; however, they have addressed some issues of wealth inequality differently, such as having nationalized healthcare. Additionally, their ‘service’ sector jobs pay significantly better than their American counterparts. As a consequence, the idea of tipping is almost non-existent. In the states, tipping has become so ubiquitous and expected, the service can be terrible and they still tack 20% in gratuity just because. Not so in Spain. In fact, there isn’t even a tip section on receipts at restaurants. And if you do tip, it need not be more than a euro or two for even a tab of 40 euros. The same goes for taxi rides. But perhaps what is most perplexing is that the food, drink and taxi rides are not any more expensive than in the states, and indeed are often times cheaper because there is little or no tipping.

Perhaps the most obvious cultural difference, however, is the issue of health & wellness and more specifically; obesity. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are no overly obese people in Barcelona. Indeed, I have yet to encounter many people who could even be considered overweight. Don’t get me wrong, the Spanish aren’t all well-shaped gym rats, either. However, due to intelligent city design and planning (mixed-zoning) and sustainability efforts, people here walk and use bicycles much more than in the States. As a result, their healthcare costs are significantly lower, and their lives are generally less expensive, and I would argue, more enjoyable.


Here you can dozens of mopeds and bicycles locked up. This is a common sight in Barcelona.


This is the public bike system. You will see racks like this all over Barcelona. Basically locals can check a bike out, ride it to another rack somewhere else and drop it off.


Getting Involved

Part of the study abroad experience, maybe the most important part, is the immersion aspect. This means more than just living with a host family or going to school. It helps to just wander the city, get lost, and talk to locals when you can.

More specific ways that I’ve been getting involved begin with what is called the intercambio exchange. Essentially this is a program that matches local residents with international visitors. The purpose of this program is for each person to have the opportunity to practice their new language, such as English for them and Spanish for me. I actually meet my first partner on Monday, so stay tuned for that update.

The second activity I am getting involved in has been made possible by being a Gilman Scholar. The volunteer program is with the U.S. State Department. Essentially, I prepare a presentation and then visit under-served and low-income high schools around Barcelona to talk about a variety of topics – in English. The purpose of this is to expose school students to Americans and give them a chance to use their English with a real native speaker. I just had my meeting at the U.S. Consulate, so I haven’t given a presentation yet, but I plan to develop that over the next few days and begin my Barcelona lecture circuit as soon as possible.

I’m already thinking of opening up with a little exercise I picked up from some professors back at Lewis-Clark State College. I will give the class a blank sheet of paper and ask them to draw a map of the world as best they can. This will serve as a way of gauging their geographical awareness, but also get them to think about how they conceive the world in their minds and in their life.

Well amigos, that’s it for this installment. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more. The next video comes out in a couple of weeks and will be about my daily life – where I go, what I see, etc.

¡Hasta Luego!











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Food! Glorious Food!

As promised, I will give you the reader’s digest version of Senegalese food. Personally, whenever someone travels to a foreign land I love asking questions about what they ate, especially if it’s something completely unique like half fermented eggs or monkey brains.

To start, I want to talk about a cultural difference that starts with a saying that people tend to use quite often in America, “Finish your food because there are kids starving in Africa.” Here in Senegal everyone eats around the same bowl and it is actually polite to not finish the food. I am always expected to leave some food on my plate as a cultural courtesy in case someone comes who has not eaten. This is quite the opposite of what I was taught growing up which was to finish the food you put on your plate in order to not be wasteful.

As mentioned, the Senegalese eat around one single bowl. In French, this custom is called “l’art de la table.” Here are just a few rules:


  • If there are stools available, men and guests get priority. Likewise, if there are spoons, men and guests will be given a utensil first.
  • For all meals, the base layer of rice is spread out around the entire bowl. The meat and veggies are dropped in a pile in the middle. You can only eat what is immediately in front of you in a pizza pie shaped section. If you really want a carrot that is on the opposite side of the bowl, you cannot have that carrot. Reach outside your food zone at your own risk and in fear of being reprimanded.
  • The food bowl is controlled by the eldest man or woman eating. He or she has the authority to distribute the meat and veggies as they see fit. If you are bold, you can ask for a specific piece of the bowl and hope for a positive response…..However,
  • Many families will not talk around The Food Bowl.
  • The elder at the bowl will sometimes literally throw food at people around the bowl. The elder will also (mostly) de-bone the fish and share it with those around the bowl.
  • There will likely be 10 or more people seated around one bowl. So it’s important to find a comfortable position with sufficient leg room as you sit on the floor.
  • When you have eaten your fill, immediately get up from the bowl without saying anything and vacate your spot. This shows that you are done eating for that meal.

In Senegal, the variety of food depends on the region of the country and of course the economic conditions. The main staples are rice and fish, and most dishes can be simple to prepare. There is also a huge French influence – everyday thus far, my breakfast has been a baguette with coffee/tea/hot chocolate. It only costs about $1.15 for four baguettes, so it can be a really cost-effective way to start the day.

Let me describe the most common dishes that I eat on weekly basis that are native to Senegal.

cebbu jebCeebu jën: Directly translated from Wolof, meaning Rice Fish. It is a stew-like bowl of marinated and stuffed white fish cooked with tomato paste and a variety of vegetables (like carrots, cabbage, sweet potatoes) on a bed of rice. It is the national dish of Senegal.

Maafe: Chicken (sometimes lamb or beef) is cooked with vegetables in a tomato and peanut butter (more like groundnuts) sauce.

Yassa: Chicken or fish marinated in lemon juice and onions (lots and lots of onions), and cooked with mustard and black pepper and served on a bed of white rice.

Lakh: Rolled millet-balls served with yogurt, concentrated milk, and raisins or other fruits. It is the traditional offering for naming ceremonies, but it is usually a cheap and easy meal to make for Sunday evenings.


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Fabulous Food

Trying food is such an important and intricate detail of living in another part of the world! Completely submerging yourself in the culture around you includes the fun part of taste-testing tons of different plates and authentic dishes of your host country! Honestly, sometimes it can be a little scary…but no matter what, every time you will walk away with a rich experience under your belt that you’ll likely never forget.

I’ve tried a number of traditional plates here in Ecuador. Most include some form of rice, vegetables, and meat of one kind or another. However, the craziest dish that I have tried has been ‘cuy.’ Cuy is guinea pig, which is a delicacy here. It is expensive and culturally valued by Ecuadorians. It was super hard to get myself to eat it at first, because when I was younger I always had guinea pigs as pets – I could barely bring myself to eat one of them for lunch! But I’m glad I did; it was definitely worth it to be a part of the authentic and traditional way of life here!

Eating different things abroad also includes tasting many different drinks abroad. In Ecuador the harvest season goes on year round due to the good weather here at the equator. This makes for a bounty of constant healthy fruits. The juice here is unbelievably fresh and completely natural. It’s tastier than anything I’ve ever had back in the States! A typical beverage of Ecuador is called canelazo. It’s a cinnamon-flavored hot drink that is very popular to drink at night. It is also the staple of any festival or celebration, so it’s imperative to try it when visiting this beautiful country!

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Leaving the Comfort of Home: #Chinathings, traveling as opportunity, and more!

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” ~Cesare Pavese

Although aspects of this characterization of traveling ring true for me, I would counter that overall, traveling is less of a brutality than an opportunity. An opportunity for personal growth in so many ways. Traveling does force one to trust strangers and be distanced from family and friends, but in such circumstances one is compelled to make new friends, and perhaps even family. Trusting strangers deepens empathy, forces one to be humble and allows one to understand other ways of being. In this sense, I enjoy the feeling of being “constantly off balance” that traveling inevitably brings and see it more as a positive sign of growth. The feeling of being off balance derives from the absence of the kind of comfort we find in familiarity and routine. Each day here in China, I add to my list of #chinathings, i.e. cultural differences from life in the United States, be they subtle or glaring. The chaos of the streets, with mopeds, pedestrians, bikes and cars all vying to get where they need to go, jockeying for space in accordance with some unspoken set of rules that has ostensibly little to do with the lines painted on the road or the color of the traffic lights. Toddlers sporting pants with a slit between the legs for easy relief on the streets, in the park, or even (yes, really) while being held by mom over a trash can in the train station. Old and young, man or woman, hocking up loud, rattling loogies to spit unabashedly onto the sidewalk. A father and son, squatting on a main street corner in the evening around a blazing fire, fueled by fake paper money in remembrance of a deceased relative. Red lanterns decorating the awnings of restaurants and shops (red here represents prosperity, good luck, and national pride). Pairs of stone-carved dragons guarding the entrance to important buildings. The face masks, decorated with colorful patterns ranging from anime characters to the Apple logo, or simple blue or white surgical mask-esque. The contrast of the orderly lines that form in the subway in accordance with the neatly marked arrows painted on the ground where the train doors line up with the pushing and shoving and hardcore race that breaks out for the coveted train seat when the doors actually open. Construction everywhere, anytime. Something is always being demolished, while nearby, something is in the process of being built. Ancient buildings far older than the United States of America juxtaposed with McDonald’s, Starbucks and the local favorite: KFC. Young women strolling along the street on a sunny day, wielding decorated parasols to shield their skin from the rays of the sun. Elderly ladies out in the early mornings or evenings in the park, square, or parking lot, dancing to Chinese pop tunes or communist era songs emanating from a crackling boom box, possibly from the same era.  Young and old men gathered around a card or Chinese checkers table, perched on short stools while animatedly slapping cards down or consulting each other on strategy for the next move.  Often one of the men has brought his birdcage along (presumably for good luck? Or perhaps he just likes the soothing chirps to lower his blood pressure while he plays…) Young couples out in the parks or tourist spots taking wedding photos, the groom looking nervously modest, while the beautiful bride shines in an elaborate red or white (often rented for the occasion) wedding dress.  Peddlers of fresh fruit, piping hot sweet potatoes or chestnuts, candied fruit, or skewers of chuan(r)—various types of grilled meat—lined up along the road and selling their wares off the back of a three-wheeler cart, mo-ped, or little boxlike truck.

These are but a few of the #chinathings I have noticed so far. They liven up life here and make each day new and exciting. However, they also reinforce the sensation of difference and otherness that breeds a feeling of being “off balance” and homesickness. The amazing thing about human beings is that we can become accustomed to nearly any environment. As opposed to non-stop traveling, reflected by Mr. Pavese’s sentiment, the study abroad experience allows one due time to become accustomed to a new place (often just in time to return to one’s home-country and re-accustom oneself to life there!). Upon arrival, many of the above mentioned #chinathings seemed strange to me, and I most certainly held a negative and judgmental attitude toward some of them. However, after having lived here in Beijing for nearly two months, I have become accustomed to most of it. My established routine brings a sense of order and comfort to my life here, and I can always retreat to the relative safety of my dorm room if things get too strange. Traveling affords so many opportunities, both in terms of personal growth as well as in regards to the plethora of new things to try and to make yours.

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Meet Gilman Video Blogger – Dustin

Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Dustin Ellis. Dustin is serving as a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during the academic year 2014-2015 studying in Barcelona, Spain.  The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.

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The Beginning

Quito: the capital city of the country of Ecuador, where I will be spending the next four months of my semester abroad.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared in my life than I was on the day I arrived in Ecuador. Studying abroad is such a huge step in every way possible because it completely alters every aspect of your life. I was anxious at the beginning about many things – not knowing how to get around, whether I would be safe or not, what my host family would be like, and the list goes on. The first week was a lot to take in. My immediate thoughts once here were that the city is so huge, and that I knew absolutely no one at all. Those two mixed together is quite the overwhelming combination. In the next two weeks that have followed, my life has settled down and I’m able to start adjusting to what my life is like here. It’s a lot of daily work to make that happen, but it’s worth it.

One thing I miss from the United States is not having to take public transportation everywhere I go. Being in such a big city here makes traveling a time-consuming thing, which in my small home town, I am not accustomed to. There is so much traffic here! It’s hard to believe there can be so many cars and buses in one place at the same time!

One thing that I have found that I absolutely love here in Ecuador – which isn’t really prevalent in the United States – is the dancing culture. Everyone dances here! Young or old, male or female. It’s in their blood here, and I love it. People have so much fun dancing, and enjoy life through it. I have loved learning about all the different types of dance here, such as the salsa, which is my favorite!

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In the Land of Smiles

There was a split moment where I noticed several people skittering out from the sidewalks into shops and under awnings. The cloud covered sky over head likened itself to that of a thick smoke and then water, from nowhere, was everywhere. You haven’t had rain till you have had tropical rainy season rain. I was drenched in seconds. In America it would not have been uncommon to spit and swear, to get angry and upset. But this is Thailand. Walking over to the nearest cover I heard a woman call out to me in Thai and in turning back was greeted with a smile. The woman standing before me bowed her head and handed me a kabob of pineapple and pomelo and though I was soaking wet and a mile from home I couldn’t help but smile. This is Thailand.
The last week before leaving for my program was one of the most anxious times of my life. There is something about knowing that in a few short days your life with be changed drastically for the better that can mess with your head. Most of this anxiety was less nervousness about the move over but almost entirely about my own readiness to just be in Thailand. Of course, I was nervous about meeting new people or getting past the language barrier, but nothing trumped the awesome feeling of adventure and starting something new. And now that I’m in the country and have settled in, I can really feel that nervousness, that anxiety, falling away.
Arriving in Thailand has raised some new questions and erased some preconceived ideas of what life would be like here. There is no climate like Thailand’s climate. The sticky heat is everywhere and the rain comes down in sheets but it isn’t unbearable. I believe with time I can find it quite nice. I had been told it was hot here, but no one could have prepared me for the humidity. In a similar way, before I arrived I had this idea that because of the language barrier the native people wouldn’t even try to work with me. After multiple times of ordering meals and getting directions with no working knowledge of the language, I cannot stress how wrong I was; the Thai people have taken these problems with a smile and a great attitude.
This all makes for a wonderful experience so far and I can feel myself already growing accustomed to the many changes this move constitutes. And every time I’m caught in a monsoon rain or lost in the winding streets outside Bangkok I can do as the Thai do. I can smile and laugh it off because this is Thailand.

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