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Charlie’s Year Abroad Diary: I: No Pain, No Spain

Ah, the year abroad. After more than a year of severe restrictions on travelling and online classes somewhat ruining our language progress, we finally have the opportunity to get abroad and experience the languages and cultures that we study. For me, that means doing a semester at the University of Córdoba in Spain, followed by three months of teaching English near Lake Iseo in Italy. While I’m here in Spain, I’m going slightly off-piste by abandoning language and literature studies in favour of History of Art. Only time will tell whether starting a completely new subject in my second language proves to be a good idea or not.

As I’m sure you can imagine, however, the combination of Brexit and Covid has not made getting to Spain the easiest. The visa process for Spain in particular, as reported on both by the BBC and the Guardian, is a hellish mix of slow bureaucracy and unclear instructions. Even now, approaching the start of the Spanish term, many students have been unable to even get an appointment, let alone the visa itself.

My own visa sob story (and most Spanish students will have their own) is that the Consulate delayed my visa because my host university didn’t sign a document properly and the university, in its entirety, was shut for the whole of August. After discussing with the Consulate, we decided to take the risk and use the apparently sub-par signature anyway or face not making it to Spain until after the start of term. Some time later, I rang the Consulate to check on my visa, only to find out that the original signature was fine but that my application had “slipped through the cracks” and had never been sent off to Madrid. Bienvenido a España, I suppose.

Doom and gloom about Spanish slowness aside, it is amazing to have finally arrived. My cheap-as-chips Ryanair flight took me from Manchester to Málaga, but I arrived late enough in the evening that I couldn’t make the trip up to Córdoba. Thankfully, I arrived in time to be able to wander around the old town, eat some tapas and drink some chilled Rioja. After having spent two years in Oxford, the most notable difference is the prices. What I would give to only have to spend £1.50 on a large glass of wine in the UK.

Arriving in Córdoba itself was pretty easy, although the €45 one way train for a relatively short train journey made me realise that maybe the UK isn’t the only one with extortionately priced public transport. I soon noticed, however, that Córdoba is hot. As in, “hottest city in Europe”, consistently reaching 38℃ in September, hot. And I am very English, which is a euphemistic way of saying that I spent my first few hours in my fourth floor flat sweating buckets. But I assure anyone who is thinking of going to a hot climate that you will quickly acclimatise. Mostly.

As a city, Córdoba is beautiful. Roman ruins, a medieval castle, picturesque streets, baroque churches, and the famous Cathedral-Mosque (Mezquita) all make this a remarkable place to live. In terms of student life, I obviously can’t speak for other university cities throughout Europe but here there’s a really big Erasmus group which organises day trips to different parts of Spain as well as bar trips in the evening. Admittedly, I am missing gay bars, as Córdoba only has one and that’s only open on Fridays. As well as the obvious social value the Erasmus population provides, it has also been reassuring to find out that I’m not an idiot for not understanding the university’s admin process, but that this is perhaps just the famous Spanish efficiency. Even now, a day before classes start, we don’t have our timetables.

So, having now spent a week in Spain and having acquired tan (burn) lines that make me seem like an oversized Drumstick chewie, I have a few words of advice for the new second years. Firstly, it’s not an exaggeration when the websites advise beginning your visa application six months in advance. Secondly, your wardrobe may be versatile for the UK, but clothes suitable for Michaelmas in Oxford are *not* going to go well in a Mediterranean climate. And finally, the hours of boring language classes are in fact worth the effort when you’re able to flex your use of the subjunctive on the native speaker that you’re chatting to in a bar’s smoking area.

Illustration by Grace Kirman.