10 things I wish I knew before studying abroad in Murcia

Making the decision to study abroad is a feat on its own. The challenge of finding the right school, an English program, an affordable cost of living – not to mention finding your sanity once you’ve landed in this foreign place without a return ticket home. It’s all ridiculously overwhelming, but soon you will find out how incredibly amazing it is.

Change has never come easy to me. I was, and in some ways, still am a turtle that enjoys the comfort of her homey shell. I’ve learned that every time I make a significant change in my life, I always adapt and everything is always okay. You’d think that this constant series of outcomes would teach me to embrace change and even pursue it more often. It didn’t take me long to warm up to the sunny city of Murcia, leaving my comfort zone back in Canada, but here I am faced with finding a mandatory internship and the last thing I want to do is leave the newfound comfort of home I’ve found here. However, if you’re anything like me, I am telling you, you can do this! Get on that computer, don’t give up your search for the perfect opportunity abroad, and when you find it, click apply. It will be the best thing you’ve ever done for your current self and future you.

My story brought me to a southeastern region in Spain called Murcia – particularly the city of Murcia. Confused moment number one was realizing that there exists both a region and city called Murcia – something you’ll want to take into account when looking for places to live. If you’re thinking of inquiring about one of the many apartments available on golf resorts, you’re way too far from the city center and universities. Sorry for the bad news. Confused moment number two was realizing that it is pronounced something like “Mur-thia.” You’ll quickly understand that Spanish in Spain often comes with a lisp-like pronunciation of words using ci and ce. If you are planning to move to Spain, there will be no shortage of confusing moments. Get used to it. Here is some of my best advice for those of you building the courage to dig up your roots and head out into the world (or at least to Spain).

1. Learn a bit of the language beforehand:

I knew what the words “hola” and “adios” meant in Spanish before moving my entire life here. Needless to say, I was going to need a little more than those two words to get through a year in Spain, especially in Murcia. Being a foreigner in a large, international city like Barcelona or Madrid is one thing, but arriving in a small city and authentically Spanish region like Murcia is a whole other ball game. Locals are incredibly friendly and appreciate the effort you make communicating in the little Spanish you may know. But they are often taken by surprise when you tell them “yo no hablo Espanol,” as this is a rarity. Although Spanish lessons in Spain are ideal, brush up on some key terminology and phrases before you arrive, just to make everyday life a little easier on yourself.

2. Just accept the inefficiency

Coming from Canada, I had a general assumption that people are expected to be on time, that banking and business practice had grown globally in terms of efficiency, that Sunday’s were no longer treated as a holiday, and that it was blatantly rude to cut someone off mid conversation to satisfy your own needs. Apparently, my assumption was wrong. Begin mentally preparing yourself now for what some would call “Spain time,” where time is not of the essence, rent is still manually deposited between the banking hours of 9 and 2, and being rudely interrupted or butt in front of at the supermercado is seen as completely normal. We’ve even appropriately named our usual stride the “North American Walk,” considering we quickly pass by people when we don’t get stuck behind a family filling the entire width of the sidewalk, while stopping to ponder or have a full on discussion. This often results in nearly rear-ending people and usually a quiet “OMG” here and there. If you’re getting your residence status in Spain, expect to make a number of trips to the Oficina de Extranjeria – nothing can be conveniently done in one go! And “personal space?” Forget about it! Three feet of personal space in Canada is replaced by zero feet of personal space in Spain. Wait for it on the bus or when you’re sitting in an empty cafeteria. You’ll know what I mean. This is life in Murcia, and you’ve got to learn to chuckle at and embrace the differences. Take a breath, slow down, and try to enjoy the slower pace of life.

3. Always carry tissue

Murcia is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but you won’t need spare tissue in your purse to wipe tears from admiring the sheer beauty of it. In Spain (and I’ve been told in Europe, generally), there is a serious lack of toilet paper. We once checked four different bathrooms in the Madrid bus station, men’s and women’s, for a stall with toilet paper. We ended up crossing the street and using a restaurant’s facilities since the bus station didn’t seem to think it was a necessity. This very strange and common lack of amenities is one of the more unfortunate expectations you must prepare for. Even if you don’t carry tissues everywhere with you, do yourself a favour and get into the routine of checking the toilet paper stock before doing your business.

4. “Vale” means okay

One of the very first things we noticed after landing in Spain was people’s continuous use of the word “vale!” It was never a simple one liner, but a series of “vale’s” in a row. Just as we would say “okay, okay, okay,” to infer understanding, Spaniards will show their understanding with a “vale, vale, vale, vale,” and the odd “claro.” By the way, you may not quite know if they are pronouncing it with a v or b sound, as there is no real v sound in their language. When the locals ask you if the bus you are waiting for is going to “Balen-thia,” they are asking if it’s going to Valencia.

5. Murcian Spanish is it’s own language

I am by no means an expert in Spanish, but from the moment we arrived in Murcia, we were warned about their style of speaking. The fast pace of the Spanish language is hard enough for a foreigner to deduce, but try distinguishing words from one another in Murcia! One sentence sounds like one word and slang seems to be the norm. For example, when you leave a store and everyone says something that sounds like “taluego,” what they really mean is “hasta luego,” or see you soon! When you struggle to figure out exactly what it is they’re getting at and give a confused look, they’ll repeat themselves a little faster. It can actually be a really fun game to try and figure out what the Hell people are saying here.

6. Siesta is the real deal

In Murcia and Spain in general, a midday break is common practice. Most businesses close between the hours of 2 and 5, with the exception of large department stores like El Corte Ingles and the odd chain grocery store, like Dia or Mercadona. Otherwise, don’t expect to do any midday shopping or catching up after the weekend on your break from school or work. The Spanish lifestyle forces you to relax a little, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. It takes some getting used to though – if you can get used to it at all. I for one, am out for the count the second I break or lay down between work duties. It doesn’t quite work for me, being a sleepaholic, but it’s another unique aspect of the lifestyle you’ll want to prepare for.

7. So. Much. Bread!

Let’s not kid ourselves here. Carbs are delicious, satisfying, tempting, delectable…need I say more? Imagine living in a country where you are encouraged by every cafe and tapas restaurant you pass to indulge?! It’s a beautiful thing if you’re anything like me. A Murcian breakfast seems to consist of a coffee (and none of these Venti Americanos), a cake-like bizcocho or a Pastel de Carne pastry, and about 5 cigarettes. And don’t be alarmed when lunch is various tapas served on individual slices of bread or after lunch when every passerby has a fresh baked loaf in their grocery bag. To top it off, arroz or rice is a staple dish here in Murcia and in case you weren’t bloated enough, dive into my personal favourite paparajote for dessert – a battered and fried lemon leaf doused in sugary goodness. (But don’t eat the actual leaf or you’ll ruin your carbo-streak!)

8. But…so many fruits and vegetables

Thankfully, the Region of Murcia is also well known as Spain’s hub for agriculture. The region produces fruits and vegetables for Spain and the rest of Europe, making it one of the better places to live in Spain if you’re looking to counter-attack all those carbs. I will catch flack for mentioning this (for the hundredth time), but I once paid 3,00 EUR for 8 of the best oranges I’ve ever had and 1/2 a kilo of giant, bright red strawberries at a local, outdoor market. It was probably the most exciting adulting moment I’ve ever experienced! Lemon trees, olive trees, and orange trees grow in and around Murcia and the surrounding cities. You might notice an excessive use of lemons as a garnish with meals and once that olive oil hits your lips, there’s no going back to that phoney North American shit. Note that the oranges growing in the city center are not suitable for eating – something you’ll want to know before reaching to pick a free, afternoon snack. The city removes the grown oranges from the trees in the Spring to avoid streets full of smashed oranges and probably to eliminate the temptation to taste. I have to mention the wine! Murcia is home to a few stellar grape-growing areas as well, making wine here plentiful and cheap. A decent bottle of barrel aged red at the grocery store costs me 1,50 – 4,00 EUR. The day I realized this was the best day of my life.

9. It feels like there is a holiday every week

Here’s an enticing one. Coming from a rather young and multicultural country, history and tradition isn’t quite as deep rooted as it is in European countries, like Spain. The rich history here and strong Catholic faith has resulted in what seems like a million holidays and festivals. These people celebrate everything and not just for one day. Easter ceremonies and celebrations last a period of two weeks, followed by El Bando de la Huerta and Fiesta de Primavera. In my experience, these are the most elaborate of Murcia’s celebrations. Don’t be surprised when you hear fireworks that sound remarkably like bombs outside your window at 2:00am or notice a parade of people in traditional attire marching by your balcony at the strangest time of day. December is another busy holiday month, with two public holidays landing within the same week, followed by the Christmas holidays and it’s own set of traditions. Don’t worry, you can relish in Christmas festivities well into January as their celebrations continue and the day of Three Kings approaches. Carnaval is celebrated near the end of the winter months, and Las Fallas soon after in the neighbouring city of Valencia. There certainly is no shortage of fiestas in Murcia and nearby, so fill up your glass with sangria and take it all in while you can!

10. You might just fall in love

Murcia has quirks, and many of them make you miss the comforts and conveniences of home. But those quirks make Murcia unique, and wonderful, and full of character. The architecture will amaze you, the culture will make you feel alive, the festivals will make you feel part of a community, and the traditions will remain in your heart forever. As terrifying as it seems to uproot yourself and head out into this big, scary world, you’ll soon realize that our world isn’t so big after all. You’ll become friends with people from places you never knew existed, you’ll gain an appreciation for new, delicious foods, you might master a new language, and you’ll probably fall in love with your temporary home.

I hope that anyone reading this with “questions or doubts” (as they say in Spanglish) feels a little bit of relief and bravery inside them to go out and conquer your dream of moving abroad. Whether you are contemplating taking a job, deciding to study abroad, or simply looking for a new and exciting experience, I promise you it will change your life forever. You will experience the inevitable “WTF did I just do,” moment, but try not to let yourself down by making excuses. Your family and true friends will be a FaceTime away, the expense will prove to be a rewarding investment, the memories will exceed your expectations, and you will ultimately become a better version of yourself.

I think this is where I say “carpe diem” or something!


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