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Life in the Slow Lane in Spain

BU Abroad: Students adjust to Madrid’s late nights, relaxed pace


Gabriela Fish had no idea what Madrid would be like, “but the buildings, with all the details and the beautiful architecture, the statues, and the fountain — it is so completely different from what I was used to," she says. "I loved it.” Photo by Chris Berdik (Below) Playing with baboons in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Fish

BU Today reporters are visiting campuses across Europe this month to learn more about Boston University study abroad programs. In all, the University has 75 study abroad programs — in language, liberal arts, fine arts, engineering, and science — in more than 20 countries around the world. During the next few weeks, BU Today will be publishing students’ accounts of their international experiences. Click here to learn about Kelsey Herwig’s experience in Dresden.

Gabriela Fish has never had much use for staying in her comfort zone.

Fish, an English major with minors in Spanish and art history, spent the summer of her sophomore year volunteering in a South African baboon sanctuary. On her most recent spring break, she worked on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. And this semester she’s in Madrid, learning film translation and Spanish history, interning at the international art magazine Lapiz, and plotting her next international excursion.

She arrived in Madrid on September 11, 2008, her first trip to Europe. “I was so impressed; I had no idea what the city was going to look like,” says Fish (CAS’09). “But the buildings, with all the details and the beautiful architecture, the statues, and the fountain — it is so completely different from what I was used to. I loved it.”

Fish grew up in a bilingual household. Her mother is from Nicaragua and her father, who is from New York, taught an English language class her mother took. But Fish is broadening her language skills with courses in Spanish cinema and translation.

She translated the movie American Beauty for one of her courses.“You really have to think about what word this character would use, and you learn all the slang and the colloquial Spanish,” she says.

When not studying or at work in the offices of Lapiz, Fish takes in the Madrid scene, often strolling through the city’s central park, Retiro, and enjoying the late-to-bed, late-to-rise lifestyle. “There’s a really, really amazing nightlife in Madrid,” she says. “The bars and clubs are just insane.”

The BU program provides students with up to six euros in compensation whenever they attend a cultural event, which includes museums, flamenco, soccer games, and even movies, as long as they’re in Spanish. “Not for food, unfortunately,” says Fish.

Madrid is one of Spain’s busiest cities, but she says that compared to most American urbanites, Madrileños are a lot more relaxed. “Even though Madrid is really business-oriented, they’re not in as much of a rush as Americans are,” she says. Waiters expect you to lounge and take your time eating and aren’t quick with the check, and if you’re a little bit late, people don’t really mind.

“It’s also about siesta,” says Fish. “They don’t mind taking two or three hours of the afternoon to rest.” Dinner is often served at 9:30 or 10 p.m. “It’s a different mindset about the pace of life,” she says. “They just take the day a lot slower and make it last longer and get a little bit less sleep, but they can enjoy it.”

Fish is getting to know this new pace quite well, because like all the BU students in Madrid, she lives with a Spanish host family, Carmen and Jose Nieto, and their dog, Yoy. She has become particularly close to Carmen, whom she describes not only as a host mom who makes her meals and does her laundry (over Fish’s protests, she insists), but as a friend. “I know her whole life history, and she knows mine,” she says. Jose, who works long hours as a security guard for an embassy, isn’t around as much. But, says Fish, “he’s a real character, very typical Spanish, except that he hates bullfights.”

She is also fortunate enough to have Fridays free, which makes more time for her favorite weekend activity: travel. So far, she’s been to Seville, Toledo, and Granada, all south of Madrid. Plans for upcoming trips include Amsterdam, Morocco, and Portugal.

All of her international experiences, including caring for orphaned baboons at South Africa’s Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education and traveling to rural villages in the area hard hit by HIV and AIDS, have left Fish wavering a bit on art history as her life’s pursuit.

“It’s definitely made me question what I actually want to do,” she says. Whatever her career, “I definitely want traveling to be a part of it.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

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