Studying in Barcelona: ‘The conflicts about independence make it even more exciting’

By: Amy Pelsma
If you’re going to study abroad, you don’t expect to find yourself in the midst of political turmoil. For Dutch student Bo (20) however, the unexpected happened. She settled in Barcelona to study Art History at Universitat Autònoma in Bellaterra and found herself in the middle of a social uprising.

Before Bo started her courses at the university, she did a language training of a month in Barcelona. ‘After that language course, I felt that my Spanish level was really good. Unfortunately, everything is in Catalan in Bellaterra and not in Spanish. My Spanish course was not a waste, but I still find it difficult to communicate and have good conversations in Spanish.’

What makes it even more difficult is that Bo mainly has friends who are not originally from Spain. ‘My roommate is Canadian and my best friends here where from Denmark, England and Australia, so I actually learned more English. Sometimes we talked a little Spanish with each other, because everyone wanted to practice the Spanish language.’

She had two courses given in Catalan and she managed to keep up. ‘Catalan is actually something like French, but sometimes also like Dutch, English and Spanish. Fortunately, I followed all those languages ​​in high school.’ The level of English at the university is not as high as in the Netherlands, which is especially noticeable because lecturers cannot always appreciate it when a question is asked in English.

Independent Catalonia
Bo studied in Catalonia in a special time: a time when the independence conflict flared up. Part of Catalonia wants to be independent. This has partly to do with politics, economics and their own language. ‘In Barcelona, I did not notice much of what was going on, but I certainly did in Bellaterra and at the university. Young people here are very passionate and everywhere at the university there are slogans.’ During the strikes in Barcelona, ​​she tried to stay away from the city as much as possible. ‘I never experienced it myself, but a friend of mine just went to a lesson during a strike because she did not know they were protesting. She was insulted by other students because they are so passionate about protesting.’

As mentioned earlier, very little Spanish is spoken at the university. ‘Because they are very attached to their region where they live, they really want to maintain the Catalan language. Therefore, at some faculties lectures are only offered and taught in Catalan.’

She thinks that the subject matter is a little bit about regionalist feelings. ‘It sometimes happens that a lecturer gives his or her opinion on the situation, but this is not very common. There were a lot of strikes when I studied here, therefore I had less classes. Some teachers also found this very annoying.’

Demonstrations everywhere
Besides Bellaterra, there where demonstrations elsewhere too, like at the University of Vic. Sarah Khan, a British teacher at this university, experienced a number of demonstrations and protests. ‘At our university there are a lot of international students, the only thing we could do for them was to advise them to be careful. We also translated messages about the conflicts and we were sending them to the internationals so they knew what was going on.’

The school was not closed during the demonstration, because the violence was limited. ‘The independence issue was more mentally influencing the students, with words or slogans. The classroom was affected by all the strikes. Most of the students were tired because they had demonstrated the day before or were not even coming to class.’

Now the demonstrations are over. But at the university nobody is talking about what happened in this turbulent period in the fall. The teachers do not want to start a discussion or fights between the students. This indicates how this topic divides Catalan society.

Become independent
When you go abroad for six months you need to become more independent. The most difficult thing it that Spaniards are generally quite different from Dutch people according to Bo. ‘They are very relaxed. Sometimes I was in the gym for a class, waiting for the lesson to to start but the sports teacher was not there yet. Even in college, students arrive half an hour later. Just don’t come at all: I think sometimes.’

She also noticed the difference in the mentality of young people in Spain in regard to young people in the Netherlands. ‘Everyone is chatting all the time during lectures, really in such a way that it is uncomfortable. Because they are very small classes, the teacher can simply see who is talking. After a while I got used to it, first it was hard to fit in with the Spanish mentality.’

Bo had expected that she would have more trouble to be far from home. ‘I realized that I am not that dependent on home at all. I can easily live on my own abroad. It all went very well.’ At the end of the semester she had much less contact with her family than at the beginning. This is mainly because the demonstrations were over and most people she met are very open and helpful. All exchange students are in the same situation and the locals only like it when you ask for help.

Bo lived in a building where only students lived. This made her exchange even more easy going. ‘There is always something being organized for international students. Once a week there is a theme evening for a certain nationality. The last week it was ‘Dutch’ theme. Then the Dutch were allowed to choose the music in the building and nice pictures for a PowerPoint.’

Changing lifestyle
Making friends as an international student is not hard at all in Spain, but Bo noticed she spends more time on her studies in the Netherlands. ‘I have exams every two months at my school in the Netherlands: Hogeschool Fontys. This ensures that you remain motivated and need to regularly spend time related to your study. Here all examinations are at the end of the year, which makes it really hard to work regularly.’

We as Dutch are not used to the Spanish mentality. Therefore, Bo tried to make sure she had a bit of a routine in a day. For example, she spent time on studying and sports on weekdays and she did the fun things especially during the weekend. ‘We often planned trips or parties on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I have seen a lot of the area outside of Barcelona during the weekends. I have also been to many other Spanish cities. Studying in Spain gives you the opportunity to travel a lot.’

In the beginning Bo went out to eat a lot, but that is changed later on. ‘All students have a limited budget, so you cannot afford this all the time. When people visit me I often go out for dinner, but going to lunch somewhere is much more common in Spain.’ This is what locals do regularly.

‘Before I went to Spain, I was not expecting this kind of semester full of demonstrations and conflicts.’ Bo is very clear in what she thinks about the whole exchange. ‘It was much more fun than I expected and the conflicts about independent Catalonia made it even more exciting. If you make sure you are well prepared, you make great memories and continue without thinking too much. It is an experience that I will never forget.’