Neerja en España #2: Orientation

Originally written September 2019

I arrived to Madrid pretty exhausted off of a red eye, and went to the Airbnb I was going to stay in for the night with another Dartmouth ‘19 who got a Fulbright to be a TA in Asturias, a region in Northern Spain. I was pretty dead, but decided to head with them to a bar for a pre-orientation Fulbright event. The bar consisted of a lot of people my age talking very loudly and I was soon overwhelmed and exhausted at having to scream to converse, a common thread throughout orientation. I opted to not drink, since I hadn’t really eaten or slept. I was able to meet some people and they were all really nice, but I was happy to leave after an hour to go meet up with Cristina.

Cristina is my host sister from a 2-week Spanish exchange back in high school, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She just passed the exam to become a teacher, and she’s now teaching English to middle and high schoolers in Madrid. She’s one of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met, and it’s so nice that I started my Fulbright with at least one friend within a 200 mile radius! We had dinner and went to a rooftop bar (which I enjoyed much more than the last rooftop bar that I went to, Mr. Purple, in NYC), and it was wonderful to catch up and talk about potential vacations (I read the word vacations and first thought it said vaccinations - this pandemic is getting to me. Then I remembered there will be no more vacations for a long while) around Europe we could take together.

I then proceeded to knock out for 11 hours, which was very necessary because I had no idea how crazy orientation would be. Our days were packed with important info sessions and required social events from 7 am until past 9 pm, and then dinner time was after 9, per the Spanish eating schedule (a breakfast of basically just coffee at 7, a coffee break at 11, lunch at 2 or 3 or 4, and dinner around 10 pm + very little sleep - hence tons of coffee. This country seems a bit permanently jet lagged but so am I so it’s all good). I would drink at least 2 cups of coffee, but they make really strong espresso, and I more than once found my body literally shaking from caffeine. There were so many people to meet - it felt like college orientation all over again, except I knew I wasn’t going to see most of these people again since we are all living in different parts of Spain (spoiler alert: I was very wrong about this). Every day we had a mandatory 7-9pm cocktail event, during which we were drinking free tinto (red wine + lemonade, very delicious) and cerveza (beer) on empty stomachs since we were hungry for dinner. I was pretty overwhelmed and delirious, and felt ungrateful for feeling that way because I also recognize that this is an incredible opportunity and was excited to meet so many really cool and passionate people, but I guess a need for sleep is valid.

The makeup of the Fulbrighters was interesting. The researchers group is fairly gender-balanced and about as diverse as Dartmouth (so, not that diverse, but also not all white), but the TAs were largely composed of white women. I haven’t felt that noticeably in the minority in a long time. Clearly, it’s a privilege to get a Fulbright, but it’s also a huge privilege to be able to do a Fulbright and choose a year of personal fulfillment and travel over a higher-paying job, and that shows.

I’m happy that I took notes during a lot of the sessions, because while my brain was only half functional during orientation, the information we received was important and interesting. We learned what Fulbright expected of us - it’s really strict in some ways, for example we can’t leave Spain for more than 21 days, but also laid back in others, such as the fact that we don’t need to deliver any final product for our research (so while I definitely plan to do good work, work doesn’t have to be my #1 priority at all times). Also, they told us we should definitely take weekends to relax and explore and definitely not do work - what a concept! (I’m so happy that I used my weekends in Spain for things other than work.) We learned about a lot of differences between America and Spain. Everyone uses WhatsApp here, people are generally warmer, even in professional settings, drinking is a huge part of the culture in the way that people will even bring their children to bars, every region has festivals that last all night (and also clubs are open until 7 am - I don’t know if I can ever go clubbing here because they open at 2/3 am which is when I like to be solidly asleep).

Apparently Spain is quite progressive when it comes to laws around and percentage of people that identify as queer, especially compared to America, which was great to hear. But it’s also far from perfect - they told us that there’s a tradition in Spain as part of a festival where people wear blackface, and that it’s normal for people to joke about things that would be considered very offensive in the US. I have no idea how much of that is really true, and am interested to see what my experience will be like, especially since Zaragoza is not diverse. While the conversation the presentations started was not very in depth, I did approve of the message they promoted about trying to respect where other people are coming from while also asserting our own boundaries and explaining why certain things are not okay for us, when we feel comfortable engaging. I believe that everyone has their beliefs in large part because of how they were raised and socialized, and that hopefully if I encounter anything unfortunate it can be a starting point for conversations where people can learn and grow.

I got to meet all the other researchers and hear about their projects, which was cool. Out of the 25, there are 2 other CS researchers. The split between humanities and STEM research is pretty even. A lot of the researchers are currently doing their PhD, and they know so much about what they are studying so it was super interesting to get to talk to them! (It’s so fun to read this, now knowing the friends mentioned here so much better.) One is going to be excavating ceramics to search for signs of a plague before the bubonic plague in Barcelona. Another is going to collect nuts in a forest in Granada to get data for her ecology project. I spent a lot of time talking to this awesome woman who just graduated from Harvard law and knows so much about Spanish law and random facts about Spain (do you know that Spain is on the wrong time zone because Franco wanted Spain to have the same time zone as Nazi Germany? More support for this country literally being jet lagged). One guy who is finishing his biophysics PhD at MIT just got married to a Spanish woman he met when she did an exchange at Harvard! What a cool group of people - it’s too bad that I’m not in the same city as any of them, but we have an active WhatsApp group and a few more meetups than the rest of Fulbright Spain.

Orientation passed by in a blur, but the last presentation stuck out, from the American consulate in Spain. They said some stuff to scare us, but I really feel like Spain is much safer than America…there are basically no guns here, and while Spain has a “medium” terrorism threat, the US is much higher. The really stupid things Americans have done in Spain was very entertaining. One guy took a lot of illegal drugs in Ibiza and is currently in Spanish prison, so basically do NOT take a pill in Ibiza. Another guy went to visit a friend, went clubbing with his passport, lost his passport and phone, got separated from his friend and didn’t know where his friend lived in and so he went to the consulate, but couldn’t log into his Facebook to message his friend or remember his mother’s phone number so she could wire him money. Thankfully, emergency contacts exist. Also, don’t go clubbing with your passport.

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
comments powered by Disqus