Image taken by writer (an uncharacteristically grey day in what’s supposed to be Europe’s hottest city…)
It has now been over a month since I arrived in Córdoba, Spain and I feel pretty settled into my life here. It has to be said that it felt quite isolating at first, primarily because of the act of moving to a foreign country, but also because of the Covid restrictions which were initially in place. I was also extremely disappointed to find out that my very British concept of Freshers’ Week is completely alien here. As my German flatmate brutally pointed out: “No one else finds the idea of drinking non-stop for a week just to be ill for when uni starts appealing”. Horrifying behaviour from the Europeans.
Nonetheless, with the start of lessons and through getting involved with the various Erasmus groups, friendships started to be made, aided by the progressive lifting of pandemic restrictions. A lot of my socialising does not partner all that well with productive working, though. I’m not just talking about hangovers. As one would expect from Spain, the bar culture is very present – which often means that I’ll try to walk to the library, see someone I know, go to a bar, and proceed to spend two hours there. Oh, well.
This isn’t much of an issue, though. The academic part of my year abroad is quite relaxed. Unlike other Erasmus students who come here for a term rather than staying at their own university, Oxford’s view is that we are solely here to learn the language. With other people off teaching English or doing an internship, it wouldn’t exactly be fair if our exams here meant anything for our final degree. So they don’t. We don’t even have to take the exams if we don’t want to. This is quite a nice change from the usual exam-obsessed form of education which has been drilled into me since back in Year 9. Here, I’m studying History of Art because I’m interested – and I absolutely refuse to get stressed about it.
However, the university itself has been a culture shock. I have twenty contact hours a week, which is more than I’ve ever had at Oxford. Some classes or lectures start at 8am while others don’t finish until 9pm. (Admittedly, this is my own fault for spreading my papers between those taken by Spanish students in their first and second years.) The classes themselves have also taken me aback – although this is maybe where my bias as a third-year Oxford student shows itself. Classes here are made up of 35 people while lectures consist of 70. I can’t really tell the difference between what’s a class and what’s a lecture, because they are both just the teacher talking at us for an hour or two. When there is interaction, it’s to see who can remember the term for something or the name of an artist, quite distinct from Oxford’s emphasis on personal opinion and argument.
The teachers also feel rather impersonal; I don’t know their names and they don’t know mine – with one exception. My teacher for “Literature and Art” came and spoke to me in the 10 minute break during a two hour lecture and told me about how she’s going to be doing some work in the Other Place for a term. Never have I witnessed a room go so quiet as when I asked her: “Why are you going to Cambridge? It’s the worst university in the world!”. The fame of our ancient rivalry, it seems, is limited to the British Isles. This teacher also has a bit of a thing for English literature and art, which is nice for me because it limits how much translation I have to do. On the other hand, she also presumes that I know everything about English literature and painting. I don’t quite know how to explain to her gently that I’ve been studying exclusively Spanish and Italian literature for the past two years, so I’m somewhat lacking the ability to quote Hamlet off the cuff.
Outside of the classroom, I’ve been taking advantage of Córdoba’s location to see a bit more of Spain. One day, my flatmates and I went down to Málaga and the Costa del Sol to take advantage of the sunshine, and one weekend I took the bus to Granada and saw the beautiful Alhambra. Next weekend we’re hiring a beachside flat near Huelva for my flatmate’s birthday – although I hasten to add that it’s nowhere near as expensive as Boris Johnson’s. Overall, Spain has treated me quite well for my first month, and my initial anxieties around the potential language barrier and difficulty at making friends have been dispelled. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead – including, in all likelihood, some very angry emails from professors asking me why I never go to class – but these have been avoided so far…