In a country known for its bailas, paellas, bull fights, flamencos, and vibrant streets of grand colors and loud gentes, for my very first travel and semester abroad, I ended up in the slow and quiet part of Spain, bearing the antiquity of its nation.
Two and a half month through my stay in Huelva, one question constantly brought itself up in conversations, especially with fellow Erasmus students: What do you think of Huelva? A query that connotes either content or its contrary.
We first took sight of the traditional side of Spain through the beautiful Andalusia. Amidst our sleepy yawns, Seville greeted us with its glowing yellow lights, clad with fancy-dressed people and decorated with a fusion of modern and ancient architecture.
Our final destination however, was not as lively but it was definitely much warmer. The day after our arrival in Spain, we finally met the drowsy and ever so humble Huelva.
Unlike what we have been used to, most shops are closed on siesta hours or during the weekends. It just so happened that we arrived in the city on a Sunday. As my friend and I took our first look around the city, from the Senator Huelva hotel to Plaza de las Monjas, the city appeared abandoned with a few people scattered along wide streets and parks.
Our quiet Huelva is truly what you would envision from this imagery. It is a sleepy city that carries much history especially, concerning the expedition of Christopher Columbus, as well as historical architectures.
It is not as festive as one would expect of a Spanish city but it has its own way of reflecting the “Spanish” atmosphere, where the musk of cigarette smoke lingers when you walk down city streets, and sidewalks are lit up by people hugging and kissing each other’s cheeks for a quick hello.
As a non-spanish speaker and a first-time overseas student/traveller, it was a startling beginning to walk the streets of a city that bears one of the most fascinating accents of its country– the Andalusian accent – which is difficult to understand for the untrained ear because of their rapid speech and shortened words.
Spanish people tend to talk loudly, and generally move with a lack of finesse (especially in restaurants). With these kinds of body language and tone of voice, of course one would feel lost and anxious.
Yet even so, living in a close-knit community makes adjusting easier – even with the language barrier – because the people will not at all make one feel like a foreigner. I have taken frequent long walks and jogs along the city, and each short hour has always been filled with well-reciprocated smiles, sweet holas and cheerful buenas.
A simple walk, or a visit to the grocery shops earned me and my friends some free Spanish lessons from people we talked to because believe me, as short-tempered as they may sound, Spanish people are very patient and accommodating.
There are a lot of notable encounters that I could tell you about, but the one I treasure most so far would be an unexpected meeting with the humble señores; Franco, Romualdo and Diego.
While taking pictures of the Virgen de la Rocio beside the Casa Colon, Romualdo who had been curious called us to simply ask where we were from.
One question came after the other, and before we knew it, an exchange of the Andalucian accent and broken A1 level Spanish among two Erasmus students and former members of the Spanish policia, filled the plaza.
Most of our international friends would encourage us to travel outside of the city, expressing their view of the Erasmus+ journey as an opportunity to travel and explore activities and experiences that one could carry with them for a long time, most of which are escapades outside the city and even in different countries.
My opinion differs however. In the span of two and a half months, I have not travelled too much outside the city, instead, I have been taking my time exploring Huelva itself. Throughout these months, I was led to communities who have welcomed me warmly to their families.
I was learning a lot about the Spanish language and culture while also enjoying myself. Going around the city allowed me to gain confidence in riding the buses without having to check on google maps, and even communicate with the locals through the most basic español phrases and gestures.
Constantly touring gives you a lot of experiences, but most of these are merely glimpses. When you take the time to know your city, you get a story, and that is exactly what I have been unconsciously collecting.
You get to learn a lot, you may not like all of it but they’re definitely a way of life.
Do it like Dora!
There are many ways of getting to know your city and it does not – at all – deprive you of your time to study or your weekend plans to travel to other countries and other tourist spots.
I have been exploring our city like Dora. As I have previously and prevalently mentioned, walking or riding the bus is a definite go-to. The internet is merely saved for when I get lost, yet still, like Dora, I ask my way around most of the time.
Making friends, like what our childhood heroine taught us, is also a good practice. Talk to people at the other end of the counter, simple conversations will get you far.
When you’re in a small city like Huelva, safety is also not a problem, because there are rarely any “Swipers” around to cause trouble. If you’re not deliberately getting yourself into one, then in a small city like Huelva, you will most likely be as safe as you would try.
Small cities are as worthy as their counterparts. You learn as much and you enjoy as much, and perhaps even more.
Half-way towards the end of my semester, I made friends among the locals, discovered the environmental artist Wild Welva who decorated the city with his art, found the best churreria in the city center, and even learned bits of the Spanish history right from those who actually lived here.
The most fulfilling feeling that fuels my enthusiasm to learn another language is much more than just gaining an additional skill but also to have more meaningful conversations with many of the locals who decided to give much of their time to converse with a foreign student.
Of course I do not dwell much in one place alone as I have done my fair share of travelling and planning for future travels throughout our stay here. The point is that, you shouldn’t overdo it and take a look around where you already are.
Being fully immersed in a culture is much easier when you are in a smaller community after all. This doesn’t mean that you should put off plans for visiting other places, simply go out there and give your city a chance!