Postcard from Aragón

Spanish banks, supermarkets and nightlife take one Erasmus student by surprise.


Like all JS European Studies students, I have the good fortune to spend this year on exchange at a European university, in order to have a proper stab at learning a foreign language before graduating. In my case, home is now la Universidad de Zaragoza, in Aragón, north-eastern Spain. With language comes culture, and differences in going about life. The good bits, the bad bits, and the oddities make it an interesting way to pass a year.

The small differences in everyday life provide some of the most enjoyable and readily-felt aspects of my new surroundings. For example, the general awareness of, and interest in, Erasmus students is a world apart from what I’ve seen at home in Trinity. The majority of my lecturers here specifically ask after foreigners, both to check that we sufficiently understand what’s going on and to incorporate our varied perspectives into what is being taught – be it politics, languages, or history. This attitude extends outside of the classroom, and attests to a general warmth across society here. On several occasions in the early weeks, strangers invited me to come and eat with them in the canteen rather than on my own. In fact, food is a decidedly communal affair. “¡Que aproveche!” (Enjoy it!) universally accompanies the sight of someone with food, and waiting to eat before everybody is ready to start is a habit observed even in the most informal situations.

As you will know, unless you’ve missed the last six or so years of worldwide financial upheaval, Spain is a bit on the rocks. In the two months I’ve been here though, I’ve begun to see why. There seems to be an unspoken job-creation scheme at play, disconnecting employment and the concept of providing a service to the customer. Numerous public services are unnecessarily duplicated and getting anything done tends to involve getting appointments with, and the signatures of, half-a-dozen demi-gods. The functioning of banks is something akin to the 1980s, with half-nine to half-two being considered a solid day’s work. My appointment to open an account one day was a rather brief affair due the manager cheerily informing me that he hadn’t looked at any of the paperwork required and that I should come back tomorrow. Similarly, the university administration has a one-word mantra for working before 10:30am or after 2:30pm: “impossible.” Technology is startlingly absent in many situations, often compounded by human refusal to run an efficient system.

Supermarkets and shops do not have self-service check-outs and generally let large queues form rather than open a second till. Meanwhile shelves are left bare and some products appear only intermittently despite the presumed existence of a supply chain. Trinity’s wireless printing system is significantly more sophisticated than the Zaragoza alternative of one person physically manning a printer at irregular hours of the day on behalf of the entire faculty.

As a British student of an Irish university, it’s worth emphasising that this isn’t the reactionary opinion of some little-Englander unused to life in another country; for example, opening an account with AIB in Freshers’ Week was a 10 minute affair, in contrast to the reams of paperwork required by Santander this time around. Instead, this difference in approach to a fairly basic activity has underlined, and made me appreciate, the close cultural overlap between Britain and Ireland in comparison with some of our continental friends. A more regular reminder of this is the Spanish obsession with I.D. and the constant need to prove one’s identity in the most mundane of situations. Simple tasks such as paying with a debit card, joining a hockey club, or competing in a fencing competition all require official accreditation. The innocent may have nothing to hide, but the slightly authoritarian tinge this gives life is something that I appreciate living without back in Ireland or the UK.

Sport is a huge part of life here, and the old stereotypes of Spanish soccer seem to contain more than a pinch of truth. Public following here is about 45% Real Madrid, 45% Barcelona, and 10% Real Zaragoza or another one of the many scorned local clubs which abound in Spain. Numerous supporters of Real Zaragoza have confided their despair at the fact that ‘away’ support outnumbers home fans when one of the big two come to town. Meanwhile, there is seemingly no concern about passionately supporting Barcelona one day before playing five-a-side in a Chelsea shirt the next. “What’s the harm? I like the colour blue.” At least when the Irish pick sides at random they have the excuse that St. Pats or Longford Town aren’t really comparable set-ups. Cheating and associated dark arts are also readily embraced; there is widespread confusion as to why there could be anything negative to say about Luis Suárez, or why it warrants mention that Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo – for all their undoubted skill – are reprehensible cheats. Related to this is the unstated stance that soccer is, to all intents and purposes, a non-contact sport. As a life-long follower of the English game, it is quite revealing to consider the difference of views which often exists between fans and players at home in this context.

Rugby has a special relationship with Spanish university life, despite otherwise being virtually non-existent otherwise. Tradition dictates that each faculty has a team, overwhelmingly comprised of people who learn the game from scratch before abandoning it the moment they graduate. And while sports such as fencing and trampolining have a similar rhythm in Ireland, they don’t enjoy the prime real-estate afforded to rugby here; the mini-stadium on campus in Zaragoza caters for rugby football rather than its association counterpart. A purist, though, may feel that some of the finer points of the game haven’t quite made it unharmed across the linguistic frontier; when discussing positions recently with a Spaniard, forwards were in all earnestness labelled as ‘fat ones’. One delightful aspect of the faculty teams is the expression it gives to the identity formed by occupants of different buildings. Trinity’s informal division between the Arts Block and Hamilton provides a stark contrast to the good-hearted competition in existence between such groups in Zaragoza.

On the theme of identity, having the Halls experience a second time around has given new life to the familiar order to ‘down it, fresher!’ Unlike at Trinity, students from JF to SS are mixed in together, with the odd postgrad cropping up as well. The result is a community spirit and well-engrained system of traditions passed on every year to incoming Freshers. The largely uniform environment of Trinity Halls can’t provide an equivalent, and to me seems poorer for it. Outside of the residences, though, Spain seems to entirely lack the idea of “Freshers”: no week set aside before the start of term; no special events; no freezing-cold mornings setting up stalls in Front Square to lure unsuspecting young people into giving you their phone number in exchange for pizza and a society membership card. In part this is because societies and clubs essentially don’t exist; the accompanying pan-university community and identity bound up within them are similarly missing. While I am enjoying the external sports clubs I’ve joined since coming to Spain, they don’t compare to what I stumbled across at Trinity when arriving in Ireland as a freshman.

Social life
Partying, that other mainstay of university life, also differs significantly in both what they do and when they do it. I suspect that most people reading this have at least once turned up to a lecture slightly worse for wear due the antics of the night before: functioning, but barely. In contrast, the remarkable hours Spanish students keep makes that virtually unknown here. Pre-drinking ends at around three in the morning, clubs fill up between four and five, and the ‘night’ ends at about eight. It’s madness: incredible fun, but madness. And unlike the Anglophone preference for fuelling nocturnal activities with a bottle of vodka, some cans, and a few drinking games, alcohol plays a relatively minor role in this never-ending night out. Some people do end up drunk, of course, but weak red wine mixed with coke (Kalimotxo) is the common tipple of choice, with a moderate amount being drunk over a long period of time – which is all the more surprising given that a bottle of spirits only costs about €5.

Self-control and immense duration repeat themselves during Pilares; the October festival akin to having ten St. Patrick’s Days in a row. The historic city centre is turned into a concert venue, Trinity Ball-style, while the surrounding streets are filled with musicians, performers, and artists. A dedicated theme park and party zone is also constructed in the south of the city to cater for those who want to carry on until sunrise – with more live music on hand. Zaragoza essentially shuts down for a week and a half, with shops, public transport, and the university functioning on only a skeletal timetable to account for the public processions and cultural activities given precedence. Meanwhile, the Peñas – dedicated fiesta clubs, each adorned with their own colours, brass bands, rituals, and traditions – fill the streets and ensure that a good time is had by all who want it. Each morning starts with Vaquillas, whereby the general public – often coming directly from a night out – are allowed into the bullring with the bulls in order to prove quite how brave/stupid they are. Though undoubtedly cruel (especially as it serves as a curtain-raiser for the afternoon’s actual bullfighting) it is an incredible spectacle. The risk of being seriously hurt remains very real, with several people being hospitalised this year after proving not quite as fleet-footed as they had thought. All good fun though, eh?

Having been in Spain for only two months, already I am thoroughly in love with the experience of being somewhere new. At the same time, a part of me does miss Dublin; the obvious distance Erasmus puts between me and the life I’ve built there over the last two years can’t fail to have its effects. But the world is an interesting place. People come in all shapes and sizes; how they live, act, and interact is worth seeing, and I’m glad to be able to do so in this small corner of the world. When June comes around to send me home I will doubtless look forward to starting another chapter in the familiar surrounds of Front Square and the Liffey. But Zaragoza, with its linguistic challenges, badly-supported football team, and fondness for mixing red wine, will easily keep me entertained until then. ¡Adiós!

Illustration: Natalie Duda