“Distincta pero buena.” Different but good. I remember repeating this back to my host mom when she said it during one of our first meals together. She was referring to the variety of cultures within Spain, telling me what cities I should visit outside of Oviedo. I repeated it aloud to reinforce the new Spanish vocabulary, but I also just really liked the phrase. With three words, my host mom spoke directly to the series of experiences I’d have over the next week.
Culture shock came in subtle waves. I was fortunate enough to have plenty of conversations with family, friends, and students who had traveled to Europe before me, priming me with knowledge of the major cultural differences. I knew I could keep the extra 15% I’d normally give my server as a tip; waiters get a salary. I knew some of Spain’s colloquialisms, and I was excited to see if people actually used them: “Vale, tia!,” for example is Spain’s way of saying ‘ok, bet.’ I knew I wouldn’t be living the fast-paced city life I was used to, and that I’d have to create a new disciplined routine for myself. However, there’s a difference between knowing and understanding.
My first couple of days abroad consisted of making sure I caught the correct flights, meeting my new host mom, and navigating a new city without Google Maps. I had to get a new SIM Card and find a way to exchange my American money into Euros. It was overwhelming, but then I realized the rush and urgency were coming from me instead of my environment. When I stopped to actually take a look around, I noticed that the street lights took longer to change. People actually sat to talk for two hours after their meals were gone and their coffee cups were empty (I live right next door to a cafe). Free time wasn’t a luxury. It was treated as a necessity built into the schedule. Literally. Shops and restaurants close for two hours in the middle of the day – from around 2 P.M. to 4 P.M. – for a siesta. Siesta translates to nap but also means you can go for a walk, read a book in the park, or spend time with a friend. Your siesta is individual to you, time to do whatever you choose.
As we transitioned into our scheduled orientation activities, it was easy to see how they coincided with the societal routine I was noticing. Professor Jamie Duran would take my classmates and I to a museum or cultural site in the morning, and, after we ate lunch together, we’d be free to enjoy our siestas and the rest of our days. In honor of cult classic TV show Friends, I used this time to live out my own romanticized scenes of laughing over a cappuccino with a group of besties. But I never thought to categorize this as a productive activity. With no obvious contributions to my career or monetary goals, it was merely a break from “real life.” That is until I realized the two aren’t mutually exclusive. This idea hit me when after having multiple conversations with my classmates or my host mom in cafes, I found myself learning just as much as I did in my classes at home. Sometimes my friends and I would be practicing our conversational Spanish, and they’d teach me a new word, or my host mom would tell me about how the school systems work for younger kids in Oviedo. I always left the table feeling inspired and fulfilled and interested. I didn’t look back on those hours spent as a waste, nor did I feel the overbearing pressure of another task waiting to be completed.
I knew it was important to invest time in activities that feed into facets of your life beyond occupation, but I didn’t truly understand it. I didn’t understand how to feel ok with just being still. It was through my nature walks and coffee dates that I finally saw the flaws in my narrow definition of productivity. I learned that the principle of productivity aligns more with purpose, not just work.
Like everyone else, I set new goals and intentions for myself when the new year hit. Some major ones for me were to find comfort in stillness and develop my proficiency in Spanish. When I married these intentions with my free time, my long conversations and Netflix movies with Spanish audio felt purposeful. Taking a mid-day walk without my headphones became productive. Spain has taught me how to slow down and not feel guilty about taking my time. It taught that there is no such thing as productivity without mindfulness, and that requires patience.
This principle won’t look the same for everyone because everyone has different goals. And not everything you do in your free time needs to have some huge underlying goal attached to it either. The key is to be intentional. Plan out your free time, and have it serve you in whatever way you need or want it to. You deserve it.