It only took three and a half months, but lovely weather has finally arrived in Asturias. After a long, rainy winter, many UniOvi students took the first sign of permanent sun as an excuse to don fewer clothes and head straight to the beach.
The coastline is but 30 minutes away, by car, in the city of Gijón. With it’s long stretches of coastline, abundance of public parks, and conspicuous availability of recreational supplements like demarcated bike paths, it makes sense that Asturias’ largest city attracts a different kind of people. With fur coats replaced by tracksuits, beanies supplanting grandpa hats, and any sort of real pants abandoned for bike shorts or swimsuits, I felt perfectly at home. I’d been once or twice before to meet my tandem partner (coincidentally in one of the most hipster cafes I’d visited in all of Spain), but never with such brilliantly fine weather.
Ask anyone from Gijón and they’ll tell you that certain “dedicated” types can be seen sunbathing even throughout the winter. Those of us who prefer to preserve our nerve endings came out in full force on Saturday to finally join them, lining the beach with towels, soccer balls, and a whole lot of skin. Seriously though, we saw somebody take a dip while only wearing a hat. The whole beach applauded. It was a beautiful moment.
Though the Cantabrian Sea is never anything but uncomfortably cold, we still felt it deserved an inaugural splash. After that terrible idea, we spent the rest of the afternoon scorching our sun-deprived skin and eating ice cream.
Once the sun finally began to set, many took their cue to head home to Oviedo, but a friend of mine from North Carolina, Chuck, decided there was no good reason not to stay. We went to the supermarket for a cheap dinner and then spent the next two hours walking up and down the coast in the dark, watching as the young culos mojados (literally “wet butts”, the playfully derogatory nickname Ovetenses have given their neighbors) slowly began to populate the beaches and bars yet again.
Around 11:00, when we were just beginning to convince ourselves that we might as well head back to Oviedo, Chuck turned to me with a better idea:
“Do you want to go talk to strangers?”
Two hours later, sitting in a bar that I had never seen before, in a city that I had never spent more than a few hours in, and talking amiably with a group of people I had only just met in Spanish without a hitch, it hit me for the first time in months: this isn’t normal.
The amount to which socializing has been reduced to a sink-or-swim level for us here is staggering. With no Spanish students in our classes, the only Spaniards placed naturally in our paths are our professors, cafeteria ladies, and host families. The rest is up to us. Finding a way into a new culture rests almost entirely on searching for even the smallest opening, and then hopelessly wriggling yourself into it until you fit. You have to stop yourself and ask the question Chuck asked me.
The stakes become lower when there’s a time limit on the experience. When you know that you have five months to either swallow your apprehensions and hope that a stranger won’t hate you for asking their name, or risk missing out, then the answer comes pretty clearly. But I wonder what might happen if we were to take this learned confidence back with us when we finally go home to Philadelphia. What happens when we poke our heads out of the nests of our classes, clubs, and our circle of best friends to ask that guy with the cool hat how his day is going?
The worst that can happen is you’re told to walk on, and that’s still never happened to me.
If it does, then that stranger is missing out on getting to hang out with you, and who in their right mind would want to do that?