Summer 2008 was the best summer of my life. Truthfully, spending an entire summer in any new country where you can practice your language first-hand is a dream come true. But there is something truly spectacular about León, España: it is suburban yet rural, noisy and quaint, old-fashioned but new. In my very biased and partial eyes, it was the perfect city.
The trip itself was very structured, yet still designed to give each student plenty of opportunities to be independent. Students never have nor will complain about a lack of city exploration or not enough cultural immersion, which is what the trip is all about. Students participate in daily classes and after-school activities as well as weekly excursions. The daily classes take place in a building very near the main campus of La Universidad de León; this building is normally used as a tutoring center for University students during the school year. All four classes take place within this small building, so the furthest walk necessary to get from one class to the next takes maybe ten seconds at a very leisurely pace. The students generally have about two hours of homework every day, but homework never interfered with my Spanish family life, although I did every bit of it. (In general, though, a good rule for the trip is that if your family asks if you’d like to go somewhere, never say no, so long as the activity is within the norms of the Honor Code. This is not only for purposes of politeness, but for the student’s benefit. You are in Spain for only seven weeks, for crying out loud! Take advantage of it.)
The four main classes are Conversation, Culture, Grammar, and Literature. Phonetics is shorter than the four regular classes, and takes place Tuesday through Thursday right before the four regular classes begin; in Phonetics you work with a professor on your Spanish pronunciation. Although not considered a class, Grupos de Apoyo (support/counseling/I’m-not-sure-if-I’m-meeting-Spanish-manners-standards) meets with the same teacher and group of students as the Phonetics class. It is a very essential part of the Program: coming in on a Monday morning after a long weekend gives you plenty of opportunity to discuss the things you did with your family, bringing up questions of etiquette and customs that many students don’t feel comfortable asking their families within the first week or two of the stay.
After classes every day, the students go to lunch. After our final class (around 1:00 PM), we all walked (los profesores as well) about ten minutes to a nearby restaurant, called Casablanca. This restaurant had two entrée options for us every day which we learned about and ordered during our 10:30 break earlier that morning. Besides the entrée, bread and salad were always available to eat before the food arrived. Generally, because of the two-entrée-option, most everybody, even the vegetarians, could find something they liked. The general consensus was that the food was delicious. I know I loved it!
Once we finished our lunch, we walked back to the school building as a group, and, if it was Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday, we would have our “activity.” The two options for your activity are theatre and choir. (Side note–you do not need to be a singer to be in choir, nor an actor to be in theatre. They are both for 100% fun and that’s how everybody approached them!) I was in choir, and can honestly say it was my favorite part of the day. We sang contemporary Spanish songs, and it was a great way to get to know the music and pop culture of España. I actually still regularly listen to the CD of songs we sang for choir–Spain really does have its own great contemporary music! The theatre group divided up and did three separate Spanish plays, which were performed along with the choir’s songs at the final goodbye performance. On Wednesdays we had sports. We either played volleyball on the university’s sand court, fútbol behind the school, or ran around the university’s track. Most of us made the most of this workout opportunity so that we could continue eating all the Nutella (chocolatey hazelnut spread) and meat we loved so dearly.
After classes and group activities were done for the day, we were free to go home or explore the city of León. Most days, I went with some other students on the bus (if we were tired) or by foot to the central part of León, an old, European-esque stone square where La Catedral de León sits. Eating ice cream outside a café looking up at the looming cathedral is what I think of when I think of León, because 90% of the days, that’s what I did. Branching off of the main square are little side streets, all lined with shops for gifts, clothes, souvenirs, more ice cream, and all the non-touristy stuff as well. On a regular day I spent about two hours or so walking around the town before I walked home. Some students took the bus to and from school, and from El Centro (the town square) home, but other students, like me, lived close enough to walk everywhere. The most important thing to remember is that León has a well-developed and advertised bus system, which can get any student from anywhere to his or her home.
Though different from regular school days schedule-wise, Fridays were also tremendous fun. Fridays were our coveted excursion days–we traveled to nearby cities in Spain to learn about some of the old structures and cultures of each city. Generally the group goes on four different excursions. Our first excursion was an exploration of León, and took place within the first few days of the trip, when none of us had really seen the town yet. We took a tour of La Catedral and walked through the town, los profesores acting as tour guides. The next Friday we traveled by bus to Burgos, a city with a breathtaking cathedral. We took a tour of this unbelievable structure, and afterwards ventured into the town, eating lunch by a tree-lined river and buying souvenirs. Our third excursion was to Salamanca, a city famous for its ancient university, and bursting with American college exchange students. The final excursion was to Gijón, an ocean-side city where we swam off Playa Salinas and got way too sunburned. Sunscreen is an absolute must, as is After-Sun. I would venture to guess that every student bought at least one bottle of After Sun during the trip!
So, there it is: León in a nutshell! But I’d like to leave you with three pieces of advice, which, to make the most of this trip, you must follow:
- Always speak Spanish…words cannot describe the improvement of your proficiency if you do, or lack thereof if you don’t!
- Spend time and speak with your family. You will treasure every second of it afterwards.
- Meet everybody in your group. Because when you get back to Indiana, you realize that “nearby” cities are hours away!