By Lauren Brenizer
Follow me through my study abroad endeavors as I go around Barcelona and other parts of Europe, learning new lessons from the people I have encountered.
They say you learn a lot based on the people you have met and the experiences you’ve had. Though I have experienced this on a smaller scale, I was ready for a change, a fresh start where I could meet new people. That is why I’m in Barcelona, studying abroad through a small program called ALBA Study Abroad. I came with two suitcases, an open mind, and a longing for unforgettable experiences. The point of this blog is to share my experiences with the people I have met here in Barcelona, along with other countries I have visited. I hope this blog can inspire others to get out there, get out of their comfort zone and talk to strangers. “Going out there” doesn’t have to mean you take a flight to Europe; it can mean that you get out of your house and talk to someone at your local coffee shop. I also hope to apply what I’ve learned from the people I met to my life back in the states. Most of all, I remind myself daily that life is too short to care what people think. Travel alone, talk to strangers and do what fuels you.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the privilege that I have of being able to study abroad and visit the beautiful countries I have gone to.
If you don’t know me, hello! My name is Lauren Brenizer. I was born and raised in small-town outside of Los Angeles, California. I am currently a junior at the University of Washington, studying business and environmental studies. I won’t bore you with the details of my monotonous life, but for context, I would like to give you a background on my experiences traveling and interactions with people. From a young age, socializing and talking to others came to me with ease and was one passion that had carried into my adulthood. More recently, I have channeled my passion by becoming a tour guide at the University of Washington and working at a restaurant as a server. Once Covid hit, I became highly comfortable being isolated and alone from others, including some of my best friends. While it was good to learn how to be content with myself, I blocked out the rest of the world and the opportunities that followed. After a while, I was comfortable staying in one place and having minimal contact with others that I didn’t feel an urge to move out of my comfort zone. I think it’s easy to want to feel secure; by nature, we like familiarity because it means that there is no imminent threat. I’ve realized that the only way to learn is to push yourself physically and mentally.
Down below are 5 various lessons I have learned from the people I encountered…
Maria’s Background and How we met
One of the first countries I visited during my time abroad was Croatia. My friend and I landed in Split and took a bus ride south to Makarska. I was itching to explore Croatia while meeting local Croatians and trying the local cuisine. I was fortunate enough to stay at my friend’s Grandma’s vacation rental for the entirety of our stay. When we exited the bus, I found myself being greeted by a delicate yet enthusiastic lady. The lady warmly introduced herself as Maria Sutlovic and wrapped her arms around me. For the first time since studying abroad, I felt welcomed genuinely and sincerely. Maria had a warm presence that reminded me of home and the gentle touch of my grandma.
Lesson #1 Life is Short so love intentionally
While spending time in Makarska for three days, I got to know Maria personally, where we talked about her life and the advice she had after living 95 years on this planet. The two main lessons I learned are life is too short and to love intentionally. While we were sitting, she looked over at me and told me that life is short. Though there was a language barrier between us, I could see the emotion on Maria’s face when she told me I was young and to enjoy my youth. Maria’s eyes were filled with sorrow when she said how fast time went by. It seemed like Maria felt a pang of guilt for not having enough time to do all the things she wished she could do when she was young. When you reach the end of your life, you realize how much you take for granted, both physically and mentally. Maria told us how hard it is for her to perform ordinary tasks such as walking or cooking. It made me realize how much I had been chasing after superficial goals, such as trying to be the most beautiful or intelligent. Despite what was on the surface, I had a healthy body capable of performing everyday tasks. Maria told me that the three most essential things in life were health, family, and education. She said the money would never fulfill her in the way her husband or children would. Maria lived a simple life, she had the bare necessities, but she was happy. Unfortunately, her husband Tony passed away five years ago from Dementia. Her eyes welled up with tears as she mourned over the love of her life’s passing. Maria said she had been with Tony for over 65 years and lit up when she talked about him. Maria met Tony when she was 17 years old at a beach. Despite her father setting her up with someone more “suitable” than Tony, she insisted that he was the one she would spend the rest of her life with. Despite the terrible loss, she remembered him as a loving father, a tender husband, and a respected member of their community. Even acknowledging Tony’s imperfections, Maria lit up when she spoke about his kindness and selflessness towards others and their family. You could tell Maria’s love for Tony, dead or alive, was unconditional. Maria and Tony were an inspiration for the type of love I one day hoped to find. Maria’s passion for Tony was alive and intentional, even if he was only there in spirit. Maria seemed content with their relationship when he passed as she loved him every day like it might be his last. Maria loved deliberately, allowing her to come to peace with Tony’s passing. The main takeaway for me is that I’ve been conditioned to believe that I have an infinite time on this planet. Not only that, but my loved ones have an endless time on this planet. As we all know, we don’t have a time limit, and our passing could be at any moment. Maria made me realize that it’s necessary to love my family and friends as though it’s their last day. To love with all your heart no matter the circumstance. To forgive and learn to love my family in different and new ways.
Who: Marc Rocas
Where: ALBA Study Abroad
How I met Marc
Marc is my Business Government and Societies professor, at ALBA Study Abroad. At first, Marc was like most professors, reserved and knew he had a mission to teach the material thoroughly. My interest in interviewing Marc, came over time after I had learned more about his work and that he had lived in Barcelona for the majority of his life. I was curious as to why he chose to teach as a profession as well as why he stayed in Barcelona. From the beginning, I had thought that Marc was an extremely intelligent individual because he translated his outside knowledge to enhance the course material.
Marc was born and raised in a small town in Catlauña, and his first language was Catalan, the official language of Catalunya. For those of you who don’t know, Catalunya is a region of Spain that runs from the French border down just about two hours south of Barcelona. The Catalan people take pride in their culture by preserving and placing a heavy emphasis on their traditions. Some of my favorite Catalan traditions include Els Castells and Tio de Nadal. Though there are many more I can talk about, these stand out to me as they are quirky yet seriously practiced amongst the Catalan people. Els Castells is a tradition where human pillars are created by stacking people up on top of each other with their feet placed on another person’s shoulder. Once the post has been made, a child climbs to the top and holds four fingers representing the four stripes of the Catalan flag. The base of the pillar consists of a large group of people called “piñas,” supporting the bottom of the post. Though it sounds like a wild concept, it has a great meaning in representing the interwoven qualities of strength and balance of the Catalonian people. Another tradition is Tio de Nadal, where the Caga Tío translated or in English the “poop log,” essentially poops out presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Before the time leading up to Christmas day or eve, the children are required to take care of Caga Tío by feeding it fruit every day so that it can “poop” out more presents. On Christmas Day, the children dip sticks in a bathtub full of water while the parents put the gifts under the Caga Tío. Once the presents are all ready, the children sing the Caga Tío song and hit the log, revealing the presents.
Life Lesson #2 Being mindful of different cultures
In comparison to the US, I feel like we do not preserve traditions as well as other countries do. I feel like Catalan traditions bring Catalan people together and remind them of their community’s resilience. With these traditions, I have seen much more of a sense of culture and community. Over the past ten years, Barcelona has become an international melting pot. Though it had brought diversity, Marc has felt less of a connection to Barcelona because of the increased internationalization over the years.
Moreover, Marc said that only 20% of the population born in Barcelona still lived there. In large cities in the US, I am not used to meeting locals, primarily due to the tech companies bringing people from all over the country. I never knew that individuals could be affected by the change in demographics like the people of Catalunya. Though internationalization is a great thing, it also makes it harder for the locals to keep their traditions and maintain the language. It also made me realize how much of Catalan’s identity derived from their culture. Since the US doesn’t have many traditions other than our independence day or Thanksgiving, I never felt connected in the way that people like Marc did. When learning about Catalunya, I realized how disconnected I was from my country and how I longed for a strong cultural identity. Though I may not have traditions I practice consistently, I felt a sense of openness from Catalans in allowing me to partake in their traditions. This was when I realized that culture brings people together no matter who they may be.
Nevertheless, I realized how important it was to be mindful of the strong cultural ties in other countries and dedicate more time to learning the customs of that culture. Because of people like Marc, I want to be more mindful of the gentrification happening in cities and its impact on societies with strong cultural connections. Next time I move to a new country, I want to dedicate time to researching the people and their culture because I am not just living in a new city; I am living in someone else’s city.
Who: Nordy, a local spice vendor in the medina
Where: Tangier Morocco
How We Met
This is Nordy. Nordy was born and raised in Tangier, Morocco, and owned a fantastic spice shop in Tangier’s local medina. My friend and I found Nordy by what one may call fate. When you’re in Morocco, it is a given that you must buy spices. For two hours, my friend and I looked for the best place to buy garam masala, a spice typically used in curries and traditional Indian cuisine. After several attempts, my friend and I were ready to throw in the towel and end our spice hunt. Finally, my friend and I were able to find this place because one vendor pointed to an old building and told us to go there. With hesitance from me and my friend, I decided to go for it because, at this point, we were relentless, and I had a feeling that we might have a chance. When we approached the building, we found the jackpot as we entered spice heaven. We were eagerly greeted by an older man who warmly asked us what we were looking to buy. Instantly I noticed the aromatic smells of curcumin, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. I saw big bags of spices sitting on the room’s perimeter and additional spices and products on shelves. When my friend and I asked if he sold garam masala, Nordy said he didn’t, but he could make it. Our eyes widened as we realized we would see the whole process of garam masala made. Up until that point, I never knew garam masala was a blend of spices, including cumin, coriander, cinnamon, masala, and citrus peels.
Though the whole process was long and tedious, Nordy seemed to enjoy what he did, which spoke volumes about his personality. Nordy poured his heart and soul into what he did and wanted to make sure each spice package was custom designed. The spice merchant took out an ancient-looking scale with weights on each side and measured the spices individually. Carefully, Nordy scooped up the spice and sprinkled it onto a piece of paper, and then counted it by tipping the weight on the scale back and forth until he reached the desired weight. As Nordy made each batch, he kindly asked what spice level we wanted and customized the garam masala according to our taste preferences. The precision used for each spice made me realize that they were more than just a substance to flavor food. My whole life, I had bought spices from a grocery store in a plastic container, and for the longest time, it seemed intuitive that spices were manufactured in factories. I had never considered species origins and the production and traditions tied to them. The colorful mounds of dust served a different purpose in other countries; it was an art that told a story through different flavors and smells. Spices were the bridge between traditions and food, as they were the key to separating diverse cultural cuisine. While creating each spice, he talked to us, mainly in Spanish, because he knew the language better. Nordy told us about his life in Tangier and how much he loves living there. To our surprise, we found out that his spice shop was well known worldwide and that a famous Spanish chef came to buy spices from him. When Nordy found out that we lived in the US, he said he had family in Texas, and hopefully, one day, he could visit.
Life Lesson #3 Don’t wait to do the things that you love
When he conversed with us, I realized how content he was with his life and that he didn’t need much to be happy. I always thought that a happy and fulfilling life would mean that I would have an excellent job to make a lot of money. But it seems like I was wrong; Nordy proved you could find a sense of purpose through the simplicities of life. Nordy found purpose through his family, culture, and work. Based on how he handles spices, you can tell he is passionate and loves what he does. It’s so rare to find people who love what they do regardless of the pay or the benefits. Nordy found his purpose based on what made him happy, including meeting new people and working with spices, a staple of Moroccan culture. Because when it’s all said and done, we can’t assume we will have time later in our lives to enjoy the things we love. This moment right now, at this very second, is the only thing we know for sure and that we have total control over. It is not about tomorrow; it is not about yesterday; it is not about what we need to do today to love our lives eventually. It is about now; it is actively making decisions to do things you love in the current moment you are given. Nordy may not have said it, but he alluded that we take for granted our youth, assuming that life gets better with age. And guess what? He is entirely correct. Now, I hope to go out and pursue passions that I have held off on, even if it may take some time out from growing my career. I hope that Nordy can inspire you to stop waiting to enjoy the things you are passionate about now.
Who: Raul Burguete, staff member at ALBA
Where: ALBA Study Abroad
How I Met Raúl
Love is a complicated thing, as it is beautiful and ugly. With my limited experience, I can say that love is one of the best yet worst things that ever happened to me. You should know that I am a hopeless romantic, and yes, I have watched almost every rom-com (if not twice) and read many romance novels. So naturally, I was on the hunt to find someone with a spectacular Spanish love story. While studying abroad, I met one of the faculty members in my program who had a riveting love story that I could not pass up on writing. Currently, being in a relationship, one of my biggest fears is breaking up or divorcing someone that I had imagined a forever with. Though I’ve never gone through a breakup, I have heard and seen through others how heart-wrenching, soul-sucking, and miserable it is to part ways with someone you once shared everything with. Until I met Raul, I knew you could find so much peace and a happy ending after ending a relationship.
Raul is a Staff member at ALBA, originally from Mexico City, where he had met his ex-wife. The way they met sounded like it came right out of a romance novel when he had chased to find a girl he met only once. Raul was never looking to find love; it happened when he least expected it.
When Raul met his former wife, he called it “strange and beautiful.” Raul met her once at a film festival in Mexico City; Raul never considered getting her number or contact information. Starstruck from that initial interaction, Raul couldn’t get her out of his head and proceeded to search for her for three months. Finally, Raul found her at a film festival, and from there, they kindled a beautiful love for one other. Noelia was originally from Spain and had asked if he wanted to move with her. Though Raul had not been this serious with anyone before her, he agreed, and they moved 5000 miles to Valencia, Spain. Raul married her and had a big and beautiful wedding with her family.
After living in Valencia for two years, Raul and his wife moved to a small island near Ibiza called Formentera, where they lived for three years. Unfortunately, after seven years, Raula and his wife broke it off due to her busy traveling schedule for work. Their marriage eventually became a long distanced relationship where Raul only saw his wife once every few months. As we all know, long distanced relationships are complex, especially if you are in different time zones or have limited in-person interactions. So, Raul and his wife decided to split and go separate ways.
Life Lesson #4 Sometimes good things fall apart… and that’s ok
While Raul was explaining this story, he talked highly of Noelia as they have stayed great friends over the years following the divorce. They held no anger, regret, or grudges from how the marriage ended. Typically after divorce, it is complicated, and couples end on bad terms and want vengeance on the other person. It was rarer than usual to see couples stay friends after their split. Raul loved her, but the relationship didn’t work, and that was it. After the divorce, Raul has carried on; he moved to Barcelona and started his own life where he could find life fulfillment elsewhere. One of my questions was, “do you regret it?” and Raul responded confidently, “No, because it’s never about the past or future; it was about now.” Raul said he couldn’t go back and undo the marriage or the time he met her, so why would he dwell on the past. Though she is not a romantic partner, it doesn’t mean they can’t talk and be involved in one another’s lives. Raul and his ex are best friends and will remain friends even after all they have gone through. After the split, she had a child with someone else and told Raul that she wanted him to know and be a part of her child’s life. Raul accepted and met his ex-wife’s daughter multiple times, saying that she was the most incredible child he had ever met.
It made me think about the copious amounts of time that I had spent wishing I could redo specific experiences of my life so that I wouldn’t have to experience the pain that came along with it. It was so simple, love and the relationships that didn’t work out don’t define you nor should prevent you from reaching your full potential. In the United States specifically, individuals dedicate so much time questioning why things went awry and pondering ways to fix it instead of going over valuable lessons learned and applying them to the next relationship. Raul proved that it is unnecessary to sever all ties with a former romantic partner and that you can have a platonic relationship. Raul thanks his former wife because it brought him a new culture that has opened him up to new opportunities and adventures.
Where: The Roast Club
How I met John
This is John. I met him at the beginning of my journey around two and a half months ago. John works right next to my apartment. I remember being apprehensive about going anywhere alone in Barcelona because I feared being judged by locals. When I arrived, I remember being greeted warmly, which was not common in my hometown. I tried to speak Spanish, and when John realized I was American, he laughed and switched to English. John had a friendly presence, and contrary to many baristas in the US, it looked like he genuinely enjoyed what he did. Though John was only serving coffee, it looked like it gave him a purpose and fueled him by the constant interaction of new and returning customers. My nerves eased, and I wanted to strike up a conversation. I remember asking him where he was from because servers spoke little to no English in most places I had been. With my brief interaction, I learned that the barista’s name was John and that he was from Northern Ireland. Instantly, I knew that this would be my go-to coffee shop and that I would befriend John.
Over three months, I learned a lot about him and why he came to Barcelona in the first place. John had decided to move to Barcelona in 2017 after he had traveled through Spain. John’s childhood story was unique, as he grew up when the Irish revolution took place in the 90s. John remembered cars being checked for bombs and was saved as a baby from a bombing next door. After school, John would have to stay late because of his dad’s work and would watch the military tanks pass by. John never had a normal childhood and vaguely remembers his friends because of the corruption happening in his town. Later on, John graduated and received a job renovating homes. John remodeled a house for a Polish family in Wales, which used to be a nursing home. Though John’s life was good, it was not fulfilling, which is when he realized that he wanted to travel and visit the Camino de Santiago. John spent eight weeks hiking the Camino de Santiago when he met a girl who invited him to stay in Madrid with her. Later, John met an Iranian family in Madrid who asked him to stay with them in Barcelona. John was tired of traveling and wanted to reside in one place for a while, which is why he agreed to live with the Iranian family. Though John had no idea what he would do in Barcelona, he found a job at a coffee shop and spent four years dedicating himself to learning Spanish. John had experience in international sales in coffee back in Ireland, which had propelled him to take a job in a field he knew best. After losing his spark at a commercial coffee shop, Cafe Euro, John took his current position at The Roast Club around five months ago. On the side, John works as an artist and a writer. John had said how he instantly “fell in love with the city” and had become a better person because of it. Though there were many pros to moving, John felt like there were a lot of hardships he had to face as someone who was foreign to the language and the culture.
Life Lesson #5 High risks yield high rewards
Learning more about him, I could draw parallels to my life currently. In ways, I thought that moving abroad would be easy and that I could get by with the bit of knowledge I had about the Spanish language and the culture. John had said that the culture was completely different than what he was used to. John grew up as a devoted Christian, and once he moved to Spain, it made him think about difficult questions and opened his eyes to new beliefs and opportunities. In Ireland, people are closed off and sheltered, whereas, in Spain, people are more intimate, open-minded, and communicative. John also started to take better care of himself by quitting smoking and eating healthier. It was amazing to see someone young take a leap of faith and do something unfamiliar and out of their comfort. In America, our motives are entirely different; if you want to succeed, you take the corporate 9-5 and find a place to reside permanently. It is unheard of or shameful to quit your job regardless of how unfulfilling it might be.
Moreover, traveling is deemed irresponsible, impulsive, and something you do when you retire. The biggest problem is that people are scared; people want to feel secure and follow the status quo. Traveling or changing careers violates the security we think we have. Moreover, I learned from John that it’s ok not to have it figured out and take time to do things that might help you find your calling. For John, it was scary leaving his job and family in Ireland, but he knew it was necessary if he wanted to find meaning in his life. With the risks he took came great rewards as he reconstructed his life through the opportunity to live in another country and try something new. When I see him now, it makes sense why he is beaming and radiating with happiness; John chose to pursue the things that gave him purpose.