Luis Quiroga (he/him) - Stanford in Madrid
Major: International Relations
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This photo was taken in the Setas de Sevilla, a giant sculpture made of recycled wood. I was surprised when my friend told me that we could actually go to the top of the structure in an elevator. We spend there more than an hour, seeing the city's skyline under and the sculpture's mesmerizing light show. It was one of those moments when you feel so blessed.
Questions and Answers with Luis
Why did you choose to study abroad in Madrid?
Studying abroad was one of the biggest reasons I transferred to Stanford, as it is more accessible than in any other school. When I learned that the IR program required students to spend one quarter abroad, I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity go. I was fascinated by the classes offered in Madrid and Santiago because I am passionate about the Hispanic world. But since I lived in Bolivia for most of my life, I wanted to have an experience different from Latin America. I was also excited about the language pledge because I missed studying in my native language. And another important reason was the classes offered, which satisfied some of my major’s requirements, gave me real world experience through an internship, and allowed me to discover new interests.
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Madrid?
I was expecting a version of the US in Spanish, meaning a chaotic big city, imposing skyscrapers, and people busy on their phones or cars. But on my first day, I found Madrid to be more similar to Bolivia: narrow streets, not-so-tall buildings, everything was close by, and you didn’t need a car. As time passed, I started to see the unique features of Madrid, like the quality of public transportation, the abundance of restaurants and bars, the work schedules, and the long holidays called ‘puentes.’ In the beginning, I kept comparing Madrid with what I knew, and judging things ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ but ultimately, I understood that every place has unique ways of doing things, which is what makes this world exciting and traveling so worth it.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Madrid?
New perspectives. Many of the concepts, historical events, and current issues I learned from my classes in Madrid resonated with what I have learned in the US and Bolivia. However, studying from a different perspective was an invaluable resource that I could not have gotten on campus. I had to challenge my intuitions or preconceptions. Either by the idea of limited sovereignty within the EU or the unique aspects of the Romani people’s fight for equal rights, I had to find new lenses to analyze these topics clearly.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
As a Spanish native speaker, I learned that my level of fluency in English is as comprehensible as that of someone who grew up speaking the language. Since I emigrated to the US six years ago, I was disappointed not to know all the idioms or master pronunciation and grammar. But seeing how my friends were learning Spanish in Madrid while at the same time we could perfectly hold substantial and complex conversations entirely in Spanish, made me realize that I can communicate my ideas well in English, and that small mistakes don’t make any difference in people understanding me. Further, I witnessed how their Spanish improved because they were honest with the pledge even when we were outside the institute or traveling. Since I came back, I have used English as much as possible outside school and stopped using Google Translator for reading assignments. I am impressed with how fast I start to “think in English.”
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
I got a cold during our BING trip to Cordoba around week 5. Of course, my first thought was that it could be Covid. I got a test kit the same day and got a negative result. All the following PCR tests were negative as well. However, the cold lasted for two months. I went to two different doctors. I had an insane amount of hot tea and Ricola Lemon Mint. In the search for a pharmacy almost at midnight, I even ended up in a bar called “The Pharmacy.” And when I realized there was no pharmacy inside, I had an argument about their name misleading sick people.
What I learned is that a strong sense of community is what will get us through this pandemic. As my friends and I followed the guidelines to protect ourselves and the people around us, I felt that they were there for me too when I got sick. The Stanford team sent us for PCR tests every week and whenever we needed it, provided us with medical insurance, and planned every activity with social distancing guidelines (which made me feel better about not getting my friends sick). My host family was very understanding and kind (which made a huge difference in how I felt). They referred me to their physician, helped me make an appointment, and shared their over-the-counter cold medicine.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
The organization of time. Even though I have been used to having dinner at 9 PM since I was a child, Spain had strange – from my perspective – schedules for businesses. For example, banks provide certain services until 11 AM, unless you are a registered client. Some stores and restaurants are closed during the evening. And supermarkets don’t open until 8 AM. I felt frustrated at first because I didn’t know about this in advance. But once I learned, it wasn’t hard to adapt my schedule.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Madrid?
Spending time with my host family. Especially when I arrived for lunch or dinner, I would open the main door and follow the smell of the food being prepared. I would find them chatting in the kitchen, and then we all prepared the table and sat with the TV on as background. We would talk about our day, and I asked questions about the Spaniard culture and traditions. They helped me understand the cultural differences I found, recommended places to visit and food I should try, and shared about their life. It was fascinating for me as an IR major to see how their lives were affected by historical events, which helped me better grasp what I learned in class. We talked about virtually all topics and laughed a lot. Sometimes I would join them in the living room and help them with their puzzles (I never thought I would like doing puzzles, but one or two hours flew by). We watched a soccer match together. Sometimes we would grab food outside. We even went to a musical of one of my favorite music bands, Mecano.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Madrid?
Working with a young woman who survived human trafficking as part of my internship. We would meet twice a week and do recreational or didactic activities I organized, sometimes in the NGO’s offices or outside. This internship was one of the most meaningful experiences I ever had because I got to know her story, ambitions, and potential, but I also had a direct impact in helping her get closer to her goals. Many of the conversations and moments we shared were truly memorable, but I want to share a day in particular. It was on my last day in Spain (we already have said goodbye one day before that). As I exit the metro station, I see two very familiar eyes through a face mask. I am not totally sure who it is. Then, I recognize the hairstyle, and she recognizes me, and we hug again. It was a coincidence. After that final goodbye, I thought to myself that we never know when or how the next time we see someone will be. Leaving Spain (just as leaving anywhere you consider home) was leaving people for whom I felt deep appreciation, and that is sad. But this experience at the metro station made me realize that there aren’t actual goodbyes. In the less expected moment, I might see them again.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Reaffirming. Exciting. Meaningful. Fun. Eye-opening.
What was your favorite food you had in Madrid?
Fried eggplant with honey from Cordoba. What a mixture of sweet and salty. I felt like Remy tasting cheese and strawberry, and I don’t even like eggplant in the first place. If you love food, you will love Spain.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
My phone. I wondered what it might have been like to be in the program without Google Maps or WhatsApp… And I discovered it the times I ran out of battery.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Madrid?