Neerja en España #3: Settling into Zaragoza

Originally written September 2019

After orientation, I hopped on the AVE (a high speed train, we really need this in America) and got to Zaragoza! I was exhausted from the combination of orientation and traveling with 2 suitcases that together weigh about as much as me, so I was ready to eat some food and crash. Despite being really hungry, I didn’t want to go into a restaurant, a little bit because I have a fear of eating alone in public, especially in a country as social as Spain, and mostly because most restaurants don’t serve dinner until 9 pm in Zaragoza. Wanting to find a grocery store to make some easy pasta, I typed grocery store in Google maps, and nothing came up. Then, I tried translating “grocery store” to Spanish, plugged that word in to maps, and the only things that came up were sex shops….so not helpful at all. I gave up and had some McDonalds for dinner. (The next day I realized I needed to be searching for “supermarket/supemercado”, oops). So my start to living in Zaragoza was sitting in my Airbnb alone eating some fries - hopefully it’ll all be uphill from there. (Thankfully, it was all very uphill!)

I was busy the next several days with a lot of adult errands. I opened a bank account, and even before Fulbright had sent me my first payment, it was exciting that my empty bank account said 0 euros instead of dollars - yay to no international transaction fees! I started the apartment hunt, going to places I had found on idealista. Thankfully, my Spanish somehow sufficed. The first 3 apartments I saw were: a place where 2 other Erasmus students lived (European college students that study abroad in other parts of Europe mostly so that they can party relentlessly for 6 months, and remember that the clubs are open until 7 am here), a place that reeked of cigarette smoke everywhere, and a place that had 4 boys living there (not for me). But then I found the apartment and luckily things worked out! I have lots of closet space, a dishwasher, a huge living room, air conditioning, and a kitchen that was gorgeous once we deep cleaned it. My roommates are awesome - there’s Miguel, a 29 year old from Madrid who is studying to become some sort of lawyer, and Aiko, a 25 year old from Japan who is here to learn Spanish so she can work in the ministry of foreign affairs in South America in a few years. We have a 4th roommate, and all I know about her is that she’s coming in a few days, but I’m excited to meet her!

I also found a really lovely gym right next to my apartment. It has 2 pools and a lot of fitness classes and even a spa all included and would probably be insanely expensive in America but since Zaragoza has a much lower cost of living I can easily afford it. I have absolutely no excuses to not work out a lot at this point, and am excited to try out the yoga and spin classes at the gym. I spent a lot of time cooking, which I’m loving - I’m slowly learning and able to make more advanced things, and it feels so great to cook healthy things for myself.

So overall, even though there have been ups and downs as expected, I’m feeling good about my start in Spain. I’m actually loving the city of Zaragoza - it’s calm and non-touristy but also has a lot to do. It feels weird to have everyone I love thousands of miles away, and it can be hard to only speak in English some days over a WhatsApp or FaceTime call with a poor connection. There have been times I’ve felt a bit lonely, especially in contrast to the very social culture in Spain, but I’ve been grateful to always have my family or a friend to call. It’s been kind of nice to not know people (well, until I got roommates and started making friends) and have a good reason to just spend a lot of time with myself doing whatever I want to do - I can see why people like solo traveling. (I remember that halfway through my Fulbright I reflected on this initial loneliness I felt as I walked through plazas in Zaragoza full of people socializing with each other, and being very grateful for all the new friends I had made that I explored the city with. It can be really fun to explore a place alone, but personally, I love having people to share the experience and grab a caña with.)

I have very few expectations and am excited to see where this year takes me. All I do know is that I’m going to do what I want to do and prioritize myself, and I’m really grateful to have this gift of a year in Spain to do just that!

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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