Interning abroad has been one of the most beautiful, frustrating and rewarding experiences of my life. If you're considering gaining intercultural work experience, I highly recommend it. But, you must know what you're getting yourself into. I have taken the liberty of compiling exerts of my very real and very personal diary to mentally prepare you for the challenge. Obviously, I have taken out all of the juicy boy drama and my take on Spanish Netflix (all for another blog). So, without further ado, welcome to the inside of my head. Enjoy.
September 10th, 2019:
Dear Diary, Caro took me to my internship orientation today. I met everyone. I must have said "encantada" ("nice to meet you") to 50 people. They told me that I‘d be working with the unaccompanied refugees aged 18 to 21. This age group is particularly vulnerable, because they are too old for the government to support them and are separated from their families for one reason or another. Most of the boys are still in school and Spanish is their second language. We will pretty much do everything to help support them. I was on the brink of tears all day because I am that excited to be here. I hope I can become close friends with the boys. Maybe they will even teach me some French and Arabic or throw your girl an Instagram follow (@catherine_elizabeth8).
September 25th, 2019:
Dear Diary, I would like to start by saying I LOVE THE NO MONKEY SUIT POLICY! It is refreshing to see everyone so comfortable in his or her skin. It seems as though Spaniards do not need to have a separate work persona garnished with a two-piece suit and conservative kitten heels. The Spanish lifestyle is famous for its midday siestas, and shopping-free Sundays (gasp). They mirror this relaxed take in their work culture as well. In the States, I am accustomed to beginning work as soon as my body enters the realm of my cubicle and I am usually running on cold, day-old coffee. However, in Spain, we start with a tostada, cafe con leche, and some good conversation. It has proven to be the best way to meet and get to know my coworkers. Asking for help and clarification is so much easier now that I know everyone on a more personal level. I love being the fly on the wall during meetings and watching how everyone interacts. We had a meeting on Monday where we discussed budget cuts, and everyone was so passionate, talking over one another and making big gestures. Emotion and strong opinions seem to be welcome. However, I could be wrong, considering I only understand about half of everything. My Spanish level is upper-intermediate, and Andalusians (a subgroup of Spaniards) tend to make every sentence a race. I thought my Spanish would be more of a problem, but everyone is very understanding and tries their best to slow down.
So far, I have shadowed my supervisor throughout many of the services we provide. I have gone shopping for necessities for the refugee boys I work with, checked up on their apartment, helped them register for classes, and apply for jobs, etc. Today, I looked at their apartment to make sure it was clean. It was not. If there's one similarity I've noticed across cultures, it's a boy's definition of "tidy." My favorite part so far has been helping one of the boys find a job.
October 2nd, 2019:
Dear Diary, I have officially become a member of the team. How, you ask? My coworkers are finally comfortable joking around with me. They are funny. Abdu will switch between speaking in Arabic and Spanish just to watch me panic when I realize I no longer understand anything he is saying to me. I caught on to the joke and started responding in Albanian to throw him off. Everyone thought it was hilarious. Now when I make my rounds greeting everyone with a double kiss and a “Buenas Dias!” I make sure to tell Abdu in at least eight other languages.
October 14th, 2019:
Dear Diary, I have been trapped in an all-consuming loop of self-doubt. On days where work is slow, there is nothing to shadow, and no errands to run, I feel so uncomfortable. In my head, I am slowing everyone down, and any mistakes I make will be fatal. I am not just filing papers I am filing work visas, birth certificates, and residence permits. The last thing I want to do is hurt the refugees I am trying to help, or bother the supervisors who gave me this incredible opportunity. This entire week, I have felt like my Spanish has gotten worse. Translating between two languages and following subtle cultural nuances all before noon makes my brain feel like it's melting. After the first month of my internship in the States last summer, I was already working independently and even coming up with side projects for myself. I guess I just expected to have a fast learning curve and become an integral part of my organization overnight. I thought I would be nearly fluent by now with a charming Andalusian accent (not even close). Overall, these past few weeks I have loved working with everyone at CEPAIM except for myself (dramatic, I know).
November 1st, 2019:
Dear Diary, I have made peace with the fact I will not be the CEO at a foundation like CEPAIM anytime soon. After all, I am an intern and learning is my biggest priority. As for my Spanish, I am beginning to treat it like a journey rather than a destination. I started carrying around a little notebook to write down new words and phrases. Yesterday, I went to the hardware store with Santi to make copies of house keys, for the boys, and I filled up four pages of vocabulary words just talking with the owner. Most of the words were about his garden and his son, whom he described as a “Bien Partido” (marriage material). I thought my tiny notebook would help my Spanish but I did not expect it to get me a father-in-law. I have also, been binge-watching "Elite," a teen drama set in Spain, for some passive learning. Of course, I talk my host mom’s ears off during Sobremesa (the conversation you have at the table after a large meal). It’s the little things.
November 13th, 2019:
Dear Diary, you will not believe what happened today! I had three separate people at my internship tell me I spoke great Spanish! I very humbly exerted I should be better; I had been studying it for two years, after all. They were all so surprised they thought I had been learning since I was young. I have not stopped smiling all day.
December 2nd, 2019:
Dear Diary, on the first day of class, I had a very different idea of what types of experiences I would have to create a new, realized me. I thought I would miss a train (which I have); have a misunderstanding with my host mom (not possible; we are soul sisters), or be nothing but a coffee jockey at my internship (they would never let me do that; I am the world’s worst barista). The entire month of October, I was not myself. I was shy, insecure, and irritable. If you knew me in any other month from any other year (excluding middle school -- ouch), you would not have recognized me. Usually, I speak my broken Spanish unabashedly, I am confident to a fault, and I am so chipper it's borderline obnoxious. I realized that I was wilting during any inconvenience or misunderstanding, because I had never been misunderstood or inconvenienced. The hard days were not fun, but they were so necessary. In every lecture, my professor would show us an inspirational quote to get us through the next week. I looked through my notes and found this particular quote scribbled into the margin of my notebook: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions. To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Who would have thought it was growing pains all along?
Catherine Pierce is the Fall 2019 CEA MOJO Blogger in Seville, Spain, and is currently studying at University of Houston.