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Indiana University Bloomington
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Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Kasia Mastalerz
Fall 2001

The Abroad Experience Enhances Identity

People always ask me: Who are the people that have changed your life? They ask: What is the most influential experience you have had? Those are hard questions to answer, because the things that have been most influential, the people that have been key... those are the things and the people that I cannot imagine my life without.

Spain is like that for me. This semester I am back at IU, studying Biochemistry, basically going through the actions of my previous two years, but I am DIFFERENT. I have ideas I didn't have before. I have thoughts I didn't have before. Something must have happened. Growth.

My abroad experience was all about growth. Of course, every day of my life is about personal growth, but it is easier to "expand" outside of my own realm of comfort. Here, at school, it is easy to fall into routine, which hinders observation, and retards the process of "observing life". But those are just some theories of mime, which need illustrations to support them. So, what did I observe?

The most wonderful thing about Spain is the way of life. It is noticeable right away: there are people in the streets at all times of day (except siesta), conversing, strolling, running into their friends and forgetting about that appointment they had in order to talk to them for hours. There is no concept in Spain of coming home and relaxing on the couch. No. People come home from work, eat, and go out. They need to talk to the vendors, to their neighbors. To them, this is life. The women need to meet their girlfriends in a cafe by the beach to have a drink. The men go to bars and discuss economics with the bartenders. And at might, people of all ages fill the streets: grandparents with their first grandchild in stroller out at midnight! In, general people love people. They work to live, mot live to work. It is a very strange, non-American attitude. I very much acquired a taste for it, this leaving the house to stroll, purposelessly, and by the end of my stay, I felt right at home because I had made my own acquaintances while walking around who I looked forward to seeing daily. It is a very warm feeling. And a very safe feeling. A feeling that perhaps there are no secrets since everyone is out there talking about issues. For example, on September 11th and afterwards, I got stopped on the street many times by people asking my opinion about the terrorist attacks and giving me theirs. It felt like issues were talked about universally, mot shut up in individual households. I felt a deep universality.

I did a week-long pilgrimage during my stay. The Camino de Santiago was an important unifying tool for Catholic Spain when the country was being overrun by Moors in the 8th century. When the Catholic lords were pushed to the northern limits of the Peninsula by African warriors, miraculously the remains of St. James (Santiago) were discovered by a solitary farmer and suddenly, Catholic Spain had a cause! Santiago was an unseen hero of many battles in over the next eight hundred years, in which the "Spanish" managed to root out the "Moors" ( after eight hundred years, it is hard to imagine that much distinction would remain between the two). I felt very moved to be a part of such a historical event and to be doing the Camino that had been established 1200 years before. Imagine all the feet that have treaded that path! This was another type of unity, and this one transcended time. I spent a week walking across the province of Galicia and because I was on foot, it made the experience that much more my own. I felt in charge of my own fate. And it was beautiful. And ferocious. What a strange feeling to be lost in the middle of nowhere while freezing rain pounds, so cold that you cannot move your fingers, and you are alone... and you know you must keep walking because there is no way out. It was a week of meditation—of learning to be alone and of feeling the peace that comes from silence in nature. I finished the Camino with horrible blisters and Athlete's foot, but I vowed that I would return and perhaps do the whole Camino—start from Paris or maybe even from Germany.

It is hard to know what to write in a short summary of the study abroad experience. It is like coming home and having so many stories and not knowing which one to tell. Spain is many things to me and I will never forget my life there. But the most important thing about Spain is that it put me back where I was before, but with new ideas and plans for the future. Like any new experience, it has added a new level of complexity in me. That, I feel, is very important because it defines the differences between people. The more complexity a personality shows, the easier it is to distinguish it from the personality of someone else. Complexity gives identity. It gives a meaning to "I". Complexity of thought gives you "you". Spain was factor in determining my identity. I grew in my understanding of the world (history, culture, etc.) and also in the understanding of myself because I was able to experience my reactions to foreign situations. In summary, Spain has brought me to where I am today and I cannot imagine my life without it.