Wander Without Walls
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
~ Terry Pratchett (A Hat Full of Sky)
As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote in his very famous tale of adventure Lord of the Rings, “not all those who wander are lost.” Education is about much more than a classroom or a textbook, and often the best learning comes merely from wandering outside four walls to experience the world is in all its beautiful wonder, tasting and smelling and seeing and touching and hearing and flooding the senses with the rich textures of culture.
This summer I have enjoyed the incredible blessing of spending two months in Madrid, Spain where I studied abroad through USC Dornsife. Although engineering is my major and definitely my primary passion, I absolutely adore the Spanish language and decided spending two months fully immersed in Spanish culture would be an amazing way to fill some requirements for my Spanish minor and grow as an individual through well-rounded education and global perspective. Even though this summer I have taken a hiatus from the hard sciences, my experience in Spain has helped me become a better thinker and a better global citizen, which will in turn make me a better engineer and world problem-solver in the future. The Grand Challenges for engineers we always talk about in class affect not just the USC community or the United States. They are problems that afflict the whole world, therefore it is vital to go and see the world in order to help make it better. Continuing to develop mastery of a second language has also vastly improved my ability to connect with people around the world, which will allow me to take my engineering passion internationally later on. Living in a foreign country, observing the culture, and experiencing day-to-day life in this amazing country have taught me more than I could have ever learned in a classroom.
While in Spain, I had the pleasure of living with a wonderful host family. The eldest daughter Marina was also studying industrial engineering at a public university in the city, and it was really neat to hear about her perspective on engineering after having grown up in a completely different culture. It also turned out we had taken similar classes during the year so I immensely enjoyed getting to talk about topics like the Divergence Theorem and Special Relativity in Spanish, which was both really cool and a little intimidating! There were 18 students total in our USC group, belonging to various different schools, each with a unique major and background. I was the only engineer, but many of the students also had a focus in medicine. Definitely one of the most valuable components of the abroad experience was learning from my fellow classmates, who all brought something special to the table. Some had the ability to create neat video diaries representing the Spanish culture in creative and moving ways, others were familiar with various physical therapy treatments from having worked in the USC Athletics department, and others still brought musical gifts like one student who even shared his violin music on the streets of the city. During the seven and a half weeks of the program, I took two classes, both in Spanish; the first about the history of the Iberian Peninsula was taught by a local professor named Paco, and the second about Spanish Language Skills was dual taught by two USC professors. Through these two classes we covered over 2000 years of history; it is shocking how much happened and how much the world has been influenced by just this tiny region! With each era we studied, we visited a corresponding museum in the city. Over the course of the classes, we visited the world renowned Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo Thyssen, Museo Sorolla, Museo Reina Sofia, y el Museo Arqueológico. We also visited the Royal Palace, El Escorial, and El Palacio La Granja in addition to taking trips to the surrounding cities of Toledo, Segovia, and Ávila. One of the most impressive engineering feats I’ve ever seen was the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, an enormous structure built over two millennia ago, still in a functioning state, that is composed of massive stones suspended high above the ground without the aid of grout or any kind of adhesive.
Although I feel like I could spend years in Madrid and still not uncover all it’s hidden wonders, I can confidently say I enjoyed the city to the best of my ability during my short sojourn in this European gem. I spend many afternoons exploring the plethora of public gardens, like the Parque de Retiro and Royal Botanical Garden. I spent many evenings walking the city, finding neat treasures like the Madrid Book Fair (that definitely rivals the Los Angeles Festival of Books), artisan craft fairs, local street musicians, the Cuesta Moyano used book alley, an exhibition on adaptations of Don Quijote around the world, and the ABC Museum of Spanish Illustration and Animation. I ate churros and chocolate at the famous Ginos Chocolatería, went running and swimming every week at the Canal de Infante Isabel sports center, walked the neighborhoods of Plaza Mayor, La Puerta del Sol, La Latina, and Lavapiés, and watched the sunset from the Templo de Deblod monument located on a hill overlooking the entire city. Madrid is also a burgeoning arts metropolis, so during my visit I had the opportunity to see various shows including the National Ballet of Spain, the Spanish Opera Carmen, the play El Discurso del Rey (a Spanish adaptation of the story The King’s Speech), the play El Zoo de Cristal (a Spanish adaptation of Tennessee William’s The Crystal Zoo), and the traveling Russian St. Petersburg Ballet performing El Lago de Los Cisnes (Swan Lake) among others. Remarkably, all the wonders I experienced in Madrid are only a fragment of all this city has to offer (note: I am shamelessly promoting Madrid, and highly recommend traveling there someday if you get the opportunity, it is a trip you won’t regret!)
As though being in Spain weren’t cool enough, I traveled every weekend of the program, visiting four countries representing seven languages during these seven weeks. The first weekend I went to Paris, France, where I overwhelmed my brain with visits to the D’Orsay Museum, the Louvre’ Museum, the Madeleine Chapel, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Latin Quarter, and the National Opera House among other magical historical sites. True to the poetic spirit of this historic city, we spent one evening discussing Sapphos poetry over wine and cheese in the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, and the next evening listening to French hymns in the Sacre-Cour Cathedral looking out over the glittering Paris skyline at sunset.
I also travelled to Rome, Italy, where I got to tour the coliseum and the Vatican, both of which are a wealth of history and culture. From an engineering perspective, the San Pietro Basilica is a masterpiece unlike any other, and what better place to stand back and appreciate engineering than in the capital of the former Roman Empire whose engineering innovation is legendary?
Another weekend I adventured to Oporto, Portugal, where we toured various cathedrals, walked the banks of the Rio Duero, and even got to hear a full organ concert.
I also was blessed to travel extensively within Spanish borders and get a taste of the many wonders of this incredible country. One weekend I travelled to Barcelona, where I was able to enjoy learning about the fascinating Catalán language and culture in addition to enjoying the very unique Gaudí architecture found in the Parque Güell and the Sagrada Familia cathedral (which is nothing short of magnificent when the afternoon lights stream through the prodigality of rainbow stained glass). I will also never forget how insane it was to watch the Barcelona-Juventus soccer championship for the European cup in real time from a Barcelona sports bar – when Barça won, the crowds went ballistic and thousands of people flooded the city streets singing and yelling and dancing…. The party continued well into the next day!
Halfway through the program, our entire group also travelled to the southern region of Andalucía for one week. We saw the windmills in Consuegra, and we all totally had a Don Quijote moment running underneath them chasing imaginary monsters. We saw a traditional flamenco show, and toured the beautiful Royal Alcázar and Plaza de España in Sevilla (this Plaza appears in the third film of the new Star Wars film, and I was stoked to re-watch that movie knowing I had walked in that same building!). In Granada we saw the famous Alhambra fort and another jitana flamenco show in the mountain caves. In Córdoba we saw the historic mezquita combined with a cathedral, one of the only mosques not destroyed during the Spanish Conquest.
My favorite trip in Spain, however, was by far San Sebastían, a coastal city in the northern Basque Country. Apart from having delicious ice cream that rivals Italian gelato, San Sebastián demonstrates a beautiful Basque culture in the Euskera language, traditional dance festivals, and food. We hiked three mountains during our two day visit, enjoying the views, greenery, and historic ruins on the Monte Iguelde, Monte Urgall, and Monte Ulia. By hiking Monte Ulia, we even got the opportunity to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago and enjoy absolutely divine views that I’m convinced are a glimpse of the heavens. I would love to come back someday and hike the whole 800 km of the Camino from the French border to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia on the west coast of northern Spain.
At the end of the day, looking back at these two months in Spain feels like the most wonderful dream, though I know I could never have imagined anything so extraordinary for my own life. My mind is buzzing with so many neat memories and I feel like it has grown a few sizes with all the information I’ve learned over the past few weeks. I definitely feel like each day I spent abroad I became a little less monocultural, instead adopting a world citizenship. I definitely feel like I belong in this international world, and hope someday to follow engineering abroad. Coming back I feel like instead of checking something off the bucketlist, I’ve only been inspired to dream bigger and add about a dozen more things to the life bucketlist. I am grateful beyond measure for this opportunity, and can’t wait to see what other adventures USC has in store for me. The close of this chapter is a little sad (and definitely a bit alarming considering we’ve got only about a month until I’ll be sitting in the library tackling physics problem sets instead of hopping on planes around Europe) but I’m very excited to see what this next year will bring. Terry Pratchett has a point – one of the best parts about leaving is coming back because when we do, we bring with us the beautiful memories and experiences we’ve collected, fresh eyes, and an open heart. Whatever comes next, I’m ready to be surprised.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ~ Ernest Hemingway