Friday, February 19, 2010

My First Week of School or Why One Should Not Learn Foreign Languages

Yesterday marked the end of my first week at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, the Spanish university where I am taking classes. My academic program is a little weird - I took a four-week seminar when I first got here with my program on Spanish culture, and now I take two classes and, if the coordinator ever responds, an internship. My classes are, perhaps, a little narrowly based: Politics of the European Union and Economics of the European Union. If I have to take a third class, it will probably be History of the European Union, just to keep the theme going.

The funny thing is that, since people always talk about the EU in the same way, a lot of the material has already overlapped. For instance, you always start at World War II, discuss the Marshall Plan and OECD, the Schuman Declaration, early European supranational organizations, the European Coal and Steel Community, and the European Economic Community. This means that a lot of the material I learn in EU Econ is repeated in EU Politics later that same day. As a result, when my politics professor asked if anyone could tell the differences between a free trade area, a customs union, a common market, and an economic union with an example of each from the history of European integration*, I was the only person in class who knew.

The most surprising aspect of my university experience is, perhaps, my classmates. I met an American on his second semester at UAM, James, on my first day in my econ class. On my second day, he introduced me to another member of his program, Daniele, who it turns out was my classmate in high school (!). I've been sitting with them and Wei, another Brown student who is still shopping sections, so my interactions have been pretty American-heavy. The Spanish kids didn't show up en masse until Wednesday, even though classes started almost a week earlier. They're really disruptive and don't show up or participate. The professor has actually said repeatedly that he wishes the Spanish kids would act more like the foreigners. He's really nice to us, and said he would do anything to help us out except speak slower (which he said was impossible, though he mumbles a lot and speaks at conversational volume in a huge classroom with bad acoustics). One day when there were few Spanish kids in class, he asked us each where we went to school. Yesterday, he even called on me to back him up on his impressions of Anglo-Saxon spending habits. I was a little confused at first, since I've never ever considered myself Anglo-Saxon, but Spanish people don't really understand the concept of multiethnic cultures, so I played along. Interestingly enough, the question was not directed at James, because, while we would consider ourselves both American and not Anglo-Saxon, Spanish people would never consider that there are multiple ethnicities of white Americans, or that Hispanics are equally American.

Politics of the EU is an unusual class if only because there are only a handful of Spanish students. The vast majority are there with Erasmus, the intra-EU study abroad program. While Boston University reserves the UAM for only the most advanced Spanish speakers, Erasmus couldn't care less. As a result, many of my classmates have had as little as a year of Spanish instruction. On the other hand, everyone speaks English very well and it is sort of a lingua franca, despite the fact that this is, by all means, supposed to be a legitimate Spanish class. The professor doesn't seem to care and even encourages this, much to the anger of the Spanish kids, who are neither required nor expected to understand English to attend the UAM. She said we would be allowed to present in English if everyone was ok with it and, while she lectures in Spanish, her powerpoints and some of her handouts have been in English. The resulting mix of languages can be a bit confusing.

On a whole, the experience feels a bit like high school. The buildings are, architecturally, much more similar to an American high school than a college. Especially in the main complex, the classrooms are squarish with desks and the hallways are long, wide, and littered with students wasting time. Everyone commutes and my Pilar packs me a sandwich everyday (technically a bocadillo since it's on a baguette - Castellano has something like four words for sandwich, one of which being "sandwich", each with a slightly nuanced meaning). People don't pay very much attention in class and sometimes it feels like speaking in Spanish is more of an act than a necessity. I'm really enjoying it, though, and it brings back some interesting memories. Also, long live the European Union!

*For those of you interested, the answer is as follows:
A free trade agreement involves eliminating customs on products and services produced within the member states, but products traded between the states that were produced externally are still subject to customs. Examples include the European Free Trade Association (a mostly defunct early rival to what became the EU), though NAFTA is probably more familiar.
A customs union allows for free trade of all product and services regardless or origin within the member states by coordinating and harmonizing customs rules. Historical examples include the Benelux Customs Union and the early years of the European Economic Community.
A common market is like a customs union, but allows for free movement of factors of production (capital and labor) as well. The later years of the European Community are a good example, though the liberalization of barriers for factors of production was pretty gradual.
An economic union coordinates economic policy to maintain its common market. The modern EU is a pretty reasonable example, though it has not coordinated fiscal policy very well. For this I am thankful, because it means that the financial crisis in Greece has put the Euro in a nosedive against the dollar.

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