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Meredith English

Originally from West Islip, NY, Meredith English graduated from the McDonough School of Business in 2012 with an International Business and Finance double major and a Sociology minor. She participated in JYAN during the fall of 2010 while studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain.

Meredith English on the Ubiquitous Nature of Catholicism in Spain

October 26, 2010 | 2 COMMENTS

I spent the first half of my semester abroad in Barcelona and in various other sites in Spain. Besides wanting to be able to enjoy the beautiful early fall Spanish weather and beaches, I wanted the opportunity to build a solid understanding of the subtle differences in life around Spain. I also wished to see how Catholicism and religion played a role in each place I visited.

When first arriving in Barcelona, I was unsure if the city had any real religious personality. I saw many beautiful churches and the famous Sagrada Familia within the city, but when I spoke with Spanish students and professors, religion was never spoken of. In many of my classes we spoke of politics and cultural differences. I thought that in such a Catholic nation there would be some mention of the role of the church.

After spending a bit more time in Barcelona, I realized Barcelona is not secular at all. Religion is not really spoken of because it is not something that is contested or debated. It is taken as part of life and religion is woven throughout all parts of the culture.

I woke up on my first free Sunday in Barcelona hoping to explore the city and run some errands in order to get myself acclimated. Little did I know that this would be a nearly impossible task. EVERYTHING was closed. There wasn’t a single supermarket, clothing store, or departments store open. The metro ran on “off-peak” scheduling, meaning it only came every ten minutes. I asked a Spanish friend why the city basically shut down. He looked at me and said, “It’s Sunday,” as if this was the most obvious answer ever. In Barcelona, they really hold Sunday as a sacred day for rest and family. Extraneous errands and stressful activities would impose on their ability to do this. Their solution: shut down the city.

In Spanish class a few days later, we were discussing diversity in the United States. Our professor asked about diversity at Georgetown. A few of us responded that although we are a Catholic university we are by no means a homogenous group in terms of religious backgrounds. Our professor seemed a bit shocked. Someone then asked her a bit about her own religion. She responded, “I’m Spanish and I’m Catholic,” as though the two were attached.

Throughout the last two months I have also traveled to Madrid, Sevilla, Cordoba, and Valencia. Although each of these cities has an intensely different character, they are all similar in that Catholicism is detachable from daily life. When you ask locals in any of these cities for the best places to see almost all listed the Cathedral as one of the most beautiful landmarks of the city. If I woke up early enough on any Sunday morning, I was able to see large amounts of people dressed up and headed to mass.

In the different cities I visited I tried to find a time to attend mass. It was very interesting because although every priest addressed Catholic topics, the message and interpretations of the readings reflected the local characters and local events of each of the cities. I was able to learn as much about the individual places I was visiting as I did about the particular gospel.

COMMENT FROM PROF. SARAH STILES - April 15, 2011

Meredith,

As I read your letter on your impressions of Catholicism in Spain I am thinking, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." I remember studying in Madrid when I was a junior in college and experiencing some of the same things. This is not surprising as the generation between when I went and your trip is a drop in the bucket when one considers Spanish culture. Which reminds me, did you go to that underground museum where you can see the discoveries of archaeologists who found a city under the city -- going back to the Romans? Yes, Catholicism has been around for a long time and is integral to the Spanish cultural identity.

I, too, bristled at first when I couldn't "get things done" on a Sunday. At first I kind of found it depressing that the city was so desolate but as I became more integrated into the culture and became "a part of the family" with my Spanish friends, I came to appreciate the emphasis on the day of rest and time for family. It is a bit of a shock after being raised with the Protestant work ethic to experience the Catholic community ethic :-) but as you point out in your letter, after a while it feels quite natural. The fact the stores are closed means everyone can have a day off and perhaps equally important people are not in consumer mode, spending money. Ultimately, the most valuable thing we have to spend with our family and friends is our time and in Spain that is still built in. Another good reason to take the time to study abroad.

Sarah Stiles

COMMENT FROM PETER JOHNS - AUGUST 17, 2011

It's so interesting to understand the local adaptation within Sunday mass throughout different cities in Spain. I witnessed a similar concept in China: a local adaptation of a generally standardized practice. In America, businesses tend to run in a standard way throughout the entire nation; you walk into a store and buy whatever it is that you want, generally with very little negotiation. In China, bargaining is the key to successfully purchasing products, but each city seems to have its own way of bargaining. In Beijing, an American must speak Chinese to get a good deal. In more rural regions, however, where fewer tourists (especially American tourists) visit, simply being White is enough of a bargaining chip: if the locals see an American shopping at your store, it attracts even more business. While these generalizations do apply, each town within these subdivision of urban versus rural has its own characteristic and strategy for bargaining, and it comes from the historic culture of the town.

Meredith English on Lessons Learned from Spanish Culture

December 6, 2010

Each Monday in my International Management Class, my professor would pose to the class the same questions: “Donde fueron este fin de semana?” (Where did you all go this weekend) and “Como son la gente allá raros? (How are the people there strange or different?)

In the beginning of the semester our discussions centered mainly on the behavior of the Spaniards that we considered “weird” at the time. They eat at absurd times of the day! The stores have no real set hours! They have no qualms about “wasting 2 hours” with friends in a coffee shop on a work day! Virtually nothing gets done on a Sunday! They drink unrefrigerated boxed milk!

As the semester progressed, we had fewer discrepancies between our home culture and the Spanish culture to discuss. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist; it was that we took less notice in them. Things that initially seemed “strange” became part of the norm.

Adjusting to a different culture has definitely required an open mind and a willingness to be flexible. For example, the people of Barcelona have little concept of time and this requires one to accept that it is not possible to have the rigid schedule one is accustomed to in the United States. People do not rush to do errands or to work but take additional time to stop and talk to friends without worrying about their “to-do list.”

Living in Spain and traveling throughout Europe has not only allowed me to learn about other cultures, but to look at my own culture critically. There are things that I have now come to appreciate about the United States and behaviors that I now question.

There are certain things that I believe the Spaniards do better. I believe their social lifestyle allows them to minimize their stress levels and appreciate things in life that many take for granted. I believe this reduced level of stress has many health benefits. Additionally, I think the fact that people are forced to take a day of rest on Sundays, as virtually every store is closed, has benefits on family life as people spend this day relaxing with their families.

There are quite a number of things that I have come to appreciate about my own culture as a result of my time abroad. I greatly appreciate now that American culture strongly values efficiency and productivity. Throughout my time in Europe I have witnessed dozens of strikes (even one that turned violent). I have also seen people in Barcelona living in objective poverty as a result of the 20% unemployment rate.

I have also come to appreciate the status of women in American culture. Spain remains an extremely macho society. Only about 35 years ago, it was illegal for women to leave the house or get a job without the permission of a man under the rule of Franco. Working women in Spain are not given the same respect or the same opportunities as in the United States.

As a result of my experiences with these cultural differences I will return to the United States in about two weeks with a greater understanding of Spanish culture and a better defined view of my own culture. I will welcome some American norms back into my life (especially the non-smoking laws in restaurants), but will miss Mediterranean food, the Spanish people, and the siesta.