Neerja en España #12: Mid-Year

Originally written March 2020

In mid-February, Fulbright gathered all of the grantees in Murcia, Spain for 3 days of workshops, presentations, conversations, and festivities. These few days ended up being a huge highlight of my time in Spain so far! (Now I see them as by far some of the best of 2020…it’s crazy that they happened in the same year as today.)

Before mid-year, I told my labmates that I was going to Murcia, and they were shocked that I was willingly going there. They kept on telling me that Murcia is the worst place in Spain, there’s nothing in Murcia, and that even the people there are not great. While I didn’t pay too much attention to the Spanish perception of the city, my expectations for Murcia were not high - little did I know that every part of mid-year, even the location, would be wonderful.

The journey to mid-year itself was a fun adventure. I got on the AVE from Zaragoza to Madrid Atocha (Puerta de Atocha is a major train station in Madrid). As soon as I stepped off of the train, I saw one of my friends, a Fulbright Master’s candidate in Salamanca, and my orientation roommate. The train to Murcia that most of Fulbright was taking wasn’t leaving for a couple of hours, so we had time to buy some food. We walked into a cafe in Atocha and immediately saw a group of people that somehow struck us as American (though them all being about our age helped too), and it turns out they were all ETAs in La Rioja. We had a great time meeting them and learning about how their grant had been going. Soon enough it was time to go to the meeting point, so we headed down to the main level of Atocha. I was immediately overwhelmed with excitement at seeing all my Fulbright friends - the ones I had seen just a couple of weeks ago in Barcelona, but also ones from Madrid and other places. We all made our way to the platform, and it was crazy with about 150 excited Fulbrighters all catching up with each other.

I was assigned a seat on the train next to a friend, and two other friends were right in front of us, so we had a great time chatting and watching the scenery. The train ride soon turned into me walking around our train car to talk to everyone I knew, making new friends in the car, and then venturing with a friend into the cafe car. I was shook when I walked into this car and it was literally just a full on mobile bar. Within moments of walking in someone offered me some wine, and I easily spent an hour of the train ride sipping rioja, talking (well, shouting) to friends new and old, and watching the beautiful landscape of Spain change as we traveled South. (The specific thought of drinking rioja on a train is making me so incredibly nostalgic for Spain). And then all of a sudden we were in Murcia!

The main cathedral of Murcia

Mid-year itself was a wonderful whirlwind with very little sleep but a lot of fun. In format, it was very similar to orientation and the research seminar. It consisted of presentations, workshops, cocktail parties, exploring the city we were in (Murcia may be unimpressive by Spanish standards, but as an American I was pleasantly surprised), and lots of time to socialize. While the Fulbright name tags and printed out schedules were similar to orientation, the feeling was completely different. Before, meeting people and talking to them felt like awkward networking. Now, it felt fun and relaxed, but also exciting. I enjoyed conversations with people that now felt like friends, where we got to share our experiences, talk about our research, and get to know each other better. Before, the presentations were endless information coming from the Commission, but now they were talks from my friends about their work. Before, the cocktail parties felt exhausting, but now they were a really fun chance to see everyone and enjoy free unlimited wine.

The university where mid-year took place

The other Fulbrighters, especially the researchers (who I spent the most time with), definitely made mid-year what it was - I am absolutely blessed to be among these incredible people. They are so cool, deeply passionate and intelligent people with really interesting life stories and experiences. We have a lot of respect for each other intellectually and an understanding of each others desires to dive deeply into our disciplines, but also a lot of love for each other, and so much fun together going to bars/clubs until way too late or exploring new cities. Honestly, while I made a lot of incredible friends at Dartmouth, I was disappointed by how many students were only there to spend time in their Greek house before getting a job on Wall Street. Finding my people at Dartmouth took some time, whereas out of the group of about 30 researchers/master’s students here, I genuinely liked and had fun and even enlightening conversations with every one of them. (I was video chatting with a couple of Fulbright friends yesterday and we were talking about how cool it is that we are all starting grad/med school in the fall and generally how impressive everyone we met through Fulbright is - the friendships I made have persisted, as has my awe of them!)

Some highlights of mid-year (or more like small details I don’t want to forget):

  • Exploring Murcia with some friends right after we got in - the river was beautiful to walk along, there’s a casino that’s actually a beautiful building that was fun to explore, and afterwards I was able to enjoy a glass of my new favorite drink, vermouth

Exploring the casino with some friends!
I’m always so amazed at how beautiful the details are in European architecture
Obviously seeing a mirror merited a mirror selfie

  • Group lunches that weren’t scheduled with enough time (we had 1.5 hours to find a place and eat, in Spain, where lunch is supposed to be a 2+ hour affair) so we were all late to everything but collectively so it was fun. We really should have broken up but we didn’t have the heart to eat in groups smaller than a cool 16
  • How hard Murcia tourism tried to sell us on the city of Murcia - they showed us a video of Murcia (after about 18 hours in the city at this point I already recognized many of the places), gave us free stuff, and tried to convince us to come back. Professors at the university also tried to recruit several of us for graduate programs or in my case a research internship
  • Watching two close friends of mine give amazing presentations on their research - Anna on complex systems and modeling ants, and Ash on developing an HIV vaccine. My friends are so brilliant! Other Fulbrighters I want to get to know better also gave great presentations on topics such as using social media to learn languages, indigenous languages in Spain, and the role of touch in education for young children
  • Attending some pretty cool grantee-led workshops. One of them was on sustainability in Spain, and it was interesting to explore ways we have observed Spanish culture being more or less sustainable than American culture. I also attended a session where we discussed how we have been adjusting to and enjoying life in Spain, which gave me a lot of new ideas that I want to try here!
  • A workshop where a male professor was pretty condescending to me and a few of my female friends, but we stood our ground and clapped back
  • A market in Murcia with a lot of cool food options (there was some vegetarian Murcian food that was actually very good, surprisingly) that we ended up going to on multiple nights. The market also had a secret bar that you opened a window to get into - on the last night, all of Fulbright went there (the Comission included), and then to a bar/club with “erasmus” in the title
  • The Fulbright talent show! A bunch of the ETA regions gave entertaining and funny performances, which was great - everyone in La Rioja took their own bottle of wine up on stage and had a very well done and enthusiastic performance. A research friend of mine did some hilarious stand up
  • The cocktail party to end mid year - unlike the orientation cocktail, where I was exhausted and hungry, it was fun to dress up for this cocktail, enjoy the free unlimited wine, and see all of my friends at once. I will say, Fulbright has made me a lot better at navigating cocktail parties

Overall, Mid-Year was a lovely, wonderful time.

The Barca gang’s cocktail photo (I really am an honorary Barcelona researcher)

Valencia is on the way back from Murcia to Zaragoza, so I convinced five friends to stop by, and we spent 24 hours in Valencia on the way back! We were all so exhausted (going out until 3 am 2 nights in a row when you have to wake up at 8 am the next day is not ideal) and knocked out for a good 10 hours that night, but we also had a great time. Valencia is beautiful - with its Catalan-esque language (this is actually very contentious, according to two taxi drivers we had), palm trees, and beautiful architecture, it feels like a smaller, warmer and less touristy version of Barcelona. We had a great time eating paella and horchata, seeing the modern arts and sciences center, and exploring the city center.

Valencia is beautiful
The arts and sciences center at night with my friends Ash, Olivia and Miranda

Tasting some paella
and horchata with fartons! Food is a true highlight of this city.

I can’t believe that I only have 3 months left in Spain, but I’m absolutely going to make the most of them. My best friend is coming and we’re going to road trip around Mallorca for a week. My family (including my sister this time) is going to come to do Andalucia and a couple of days in Portugal. I’m determined to make it to Northern Spain - pais vasco and Asturias both seem incredible, especially once it gets a little warmer. A few more friends from the US also want to try to make it over - I am blessed with visitors! It’s going to be busy and crazy and I will literally travel every weekend for a month or two, but I’m so excited for all of the places I want to explore and people I want to get closer to. (Okay, so obviously none of that happened….except for getting closer to people. More on that soon)

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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