by Alex Pijanowski
Running late for my train from Madrid to Cádiz on a Friday in February, I mistakenly entered the wrong train car, only to find after the doors shut that I would not be able to reach my seat. Thankfully, I struck up a quick friendship with a large group of costumed, enthusiastic and moderately inebriated Spanish citizens by regaling them with stories of my upbringing in the midwestern United States. What could have been a very stressful four hours became a truly edifying cultural experience, and demonstrated to me the gregariousness of the Spanish people.
At this point, I am more than halfway through my stay in Salamanca, Spain. Salamanca combines the excitement of a modern Spanish city with the awe and wonder of one of the oldest universities in the world. Founded in 1218, the University of Salamanca is the oldest in Spain, and the third-oldest in Europe — this set in when I saw a banner advertising the university’s “800 Years of Excellence.” On my walk home, which generally lasts about 20 minutes, I experience architecture spanning the 15th through the 21st centuries. As I pace the streets that lead back to the magnificent Plaza Mayor, I am routinely struck by the thought that more of the people who have walked past these ancient walls as I do now are dead rather than alive. Only 10 minutes later, however, I await the signal to cross a six-lane street, and buildings of a height rivaling Caples block my view of the cathedral, my primary reference point when I get lost.
Meals are regimented in Spain, and I am still adjusting to this. Breakfast is light: usually, two pieces of toast, a piece of fruit and a cup of tea. The midday meal at 2 p.m. is the most extensive meal of the day, with multiple courses. Finally, la cena, the final meal of the day, is late and light — usually, soup and bread around nine in the evening. The gap between breakfast and the midday meal can sometimes be challenging, given how small a meal breakfast is. Thankfully, there is no shortage of cafés if hunger strikes between meals.
The nightlife here is vibrant; the number of cafés, clubs and bars drowns the number of options in Gambier. It is exciting to have so many interesting options for a weekend night, but I do also miss an environment where it is always likely I will see people I know on the weekend. Also, students here begin partying later — around one or two in the morning — and stay out until daybreak. Indeed, I have found that the safest time to return home after a night out is around five in the morning, as many students are also walking home at that time. One other aspect of the nightlife I did not expect is the prevalence of American music at bars and clubs, although I was pleased to find that Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailando” — one of my recent favorites — is a staple here.
On my Cádiz trip, I had a chance to see another aspect of Spanish culture. Leading up to Ash Wednesday, most major Spanish cities hold a Carnaval celebration, and Cádiz has one of the more extravagant ones. In Cádiz, Carnaval is a bit like Halloween, because almost everyone dresses up, except that it lasts for about a week, and those who go about in the streets are somewhat more rambunctious. There were also fireworks on Saturday night. Carnaval in Cádiz is certainly not for the weak of heart.
I am also trying to absorb as much as possible of the literature here, since one of my majors is Spanish literature. The number of bookstores poses a threat to my bank account balance, and the library is in a former palace. The list of great writers who have been involved with the University of Salamanca includes Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote, and Unamuno, the foremost Spanish man of letters of the 20th century. It is still possible to visit the garden meeting-place of the lovers Calisto and Melibea from the Renaissance drama La Celestina, or to sit by the banks of the River Tormes and read Lazarillo de Tormes, the first picaresque novel. In short, there is perhaps no more ideal place in the world to study Spanish literature than Salamanca.