Nearly all my classes this semester have been related to Spain. I’m taking a class on Spanish art history, a class on 20th Century Spanish history, and a Spanish language class. My travel seminar at the beginning of the semester was about the formation of the Spanish empire. Back when I was choosing a study abroad program, I looked for a program that would let me take subjects that counted toward my major. Ultimately, I’m only taking one course that does count toward my major (Abnormal Psych) and I’ve found it much less exciting than the classes related to Spain.
Generally, my courses here are not as rigorous or challenging as the ones at Amherst. It’s nice then, when the classes help me understand more about my experience here in Madrid; it makes them feel more worthwhile. I knew so little about Spanish culture and history coming into this, and I feel like everything I’ve learned about this country has helped me understand my experience more.
My art class may have done this most of all. It’s taught by Patricia, a tiny, fierce Spanish woman with a short pixie haircut and smile-lines around her eyes. She prances and jumps around the classroom, too excited by the art to stand still. We’ve gone through the semester chronologically, beginning with Romanesque and Gothic art and ending with Velasquez and Goya (the course doesn’t go through modern times). I was shocked when, after the first unit, I walked into a church in Toledo and immediately recognized the artwork. There was the Pantocrator, sitting in his bubble of the universe and holding his hand in his characteristic, three-fingered gesture. On the other side of the church was a huge gothic altarpiece. I recognized the hierarchical perspective (Mary and Jesus are much bigger than any of the other figures, since they are more important). I could point out the black lines that signify that the altarpiece was ultimately an elaborate drawing done in tempra rather than oil paint.
Patricia’s class wouldn’t have been possible at Amherst, since we meet in the Prado museum every other week. The Prado is huge and overwhelming; the first time I walked in, I had no idea where to look, let alone which corridor to walk down first. Patrician leads us in fearlessly though, and guides us from room to room to room analyzing the art. She has us get so close to Van der Weyden’s paintings that our noses nearly touch the minute brushstrokes, then positions us at the right distance to correctly see and understand the borron technique that is so prominent in Velasquez’s art. Last week, when my friend came to visit Madrid, I led her around the Prado. I brought her to my favorite El Greco paining and told her exactly why zel Greco’s strange, tall, wavy figures are so special.
Now my knowledge of art history is certainly not advanced after taking this class. I spit out a few sentences about a variety of styles and artists, then quickly reach the boundary of my analysis. But this knowledge has made all the difference in my ability to walk into a monument or museum and know what it is I’m seeing.
Sometimes, classes here are frustrating (with the exception of art history, which is almost always fabulous). The teachers don’t bring in the same level of analysis as my Amherst professors, and many of the other students seem to have different priorities than I do. At times, I end up irritated or embarrassed about how many Hermione moments I have – moments where, yet again, I am the first and only student to raise my hand because I’m the only one who’s done the reading (that doesn’t happen at Amherst!). It helps to remember that everything I’m learning about Spain helps me understand my position here more. I can ask my host mom a question in (admittedly basic) Spanish, then understand almost all of her answer. I know why the Valley of the Fallen, Spain’s last Franco-era monument, is important, and why Spaniards have such mixed reactions to it. These are things that I definitely couldn’t have done at the beginning of the semester, and things that have made my study abroad experience richer and more immersive. I wouldn’t have enjoyed Spain as much if I hadn’t been learning about its history and culture; too ,any of the country’s nuances and complexities would have been lost.
So when, yet again, one of my professors says something that would never fly at Amherst, I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that I’m not here to take Amherst classes in a new location. I still wish that some of my classes had been more engaging. But I understand Spain so much more now than when I first arrived, and for that I am grateful