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How to Get to Know a New Country

By: Callie Schaden |

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on getting to know new places. I’ve stepped foot into four different countries, but only two of them for longer than a weekend, and only one can I really claim to have gotten to know. My time in Valencia, Spain wasn’t long enough to grow deep roots in the culture, but it was long enough for me to start to feel at home. Despite my limited experience, I picked up some useful advice and now I’m here to pass it along. (Although admittedly, maybe a better title would be “How I Got to Know a New Country”.) So here’s three things that made me feel like a part of Valencia that I think could be helpful for getting to know other places as well.

#1 Go to the Same Coffee Shop Every Week

Callie Schaden, “Weekly Coffee”, 2022

Upon arrival in Valencia, a group of other students and I were shuffled into a classroom and given a long list of information about transitioning to our life in Spain. Between the 18 hours of travel, the 6-hour time change, and the overwhelming blur of arriving in a new country, most of that list didn’t stand a chance in my mind. But for some reason, the one thing that stuck was the advice to pick a coffee shop and go there on a weekly basis. I remember thinking, why not try a different coffee shop every week to experience as much of Valencia as possible, but as a woman of routine, I had no problem taking this advice and I quickly understood why it was valuable. On Mondays and Wednesdays I had an hour-and-a-half gap between my classes. My piso was 40 minutes away, and there was a café right across from the institute where I studied, so twice a week I found myself there with all my homework. I always sat at the same table (or the one behind it if it was taken), and soon I began to notice that other people did too. A tall man with thick, brown dreadlocks sat two tables behind me. He always brought his laptop and I overheard him speaking at least three different languages over the course of my semester. Two high school age boys would come in around the same time as me and sit in the comfy chairs by the front window. They always ordered food and rarely coffee. But my favorite part was the camarera, the barista who knew my order right when I got up to the counter. I was so surprised that it only took her a couple of visits to recognize me. She even caught onto my preference of azúcar morena in my café con leche and that every once in awhile I would add tostada with olive oil, tomato, and a sprinkle of salt. I loved knowing that I was a part of the café’s Monday and Wednesday morning routine. It made me feel connected to the community, like I’d slipped right into rhythm with the rest of the Valencians.

#2 Walk to School

Callie Schaden, “Walking to School”, 2022

I found that I felt most like a part of Valencia when I started walking to class. At the beginning of the semester I took the bus, but I’m a bit of a penny-pincher and when I realized the walk was doable (and free), I stuffed the bus card into the bottom of my backpack and only dug it out again on rare occasions. I closed the door to my apartment lobby behind me and stepped into the street, brimming with activity at 8:15 in the morning. A couple sipped their morning coffee at the café on the corner. The owner glanced my way through the window, a tray of empty plates teetering in his hand. I saw him every morning and I wondered if he recognized me passing by like clockwork every Monday through Thursday. At the intersection, a mom and her five little boys waited to cross the street towards El Rio, the empty-riverbed-turned-park that splits Valencia into two parts. I followed El Rio for nearly a mile, passing a group of big dog owners (notable because the majority of Valencian dogs are quite small), “the walking ladies” as they were affectionately known in my head, a handful of faces that became familiar as they passed me biking to work every day, and a brown-haired boy that looked school age but never carried a backpack. Once back on the street on the other side of El Rio, I judged my walking pace on where I was when I saw the man with the coffee and the cigarette. Every day, the same faces. And every day I felt like I knew the city and the people better and better. Walking this same route every day nestled me comfortably into the city’s routine.

Granted, this one can’t be taken literally everywhere. If you were getting to know my town in Ohio, walking to work or school would probably take you more than three hours. In this case I might advise you to drive your truck down some dirt roads to sink into our routine. Or use the public bus in a place where that’s a preferred mode of transportation. The spirit of it is “do what the locals do” in regard to getting places. It’s a great way to experience the routine of the place you’re trying to get to know in a more personal way. Walking in Valencia oriented me to the habits of the people and the geography of the city (I, unfortunately, am directionally challenged, so this was important) and gave me a street-view of the culture rather than the satellite view I would have gotten had I not had the time and opportunity to put myself into its routine.

#3 Order the Food You See the Locals Eating

Callie Schaden, “Mariángeles’ Fideuà”, 2022

One of the perks of living with a Spanish host mom is that she cooked my roommates and I traditional meals every single day. She is an incredible cook, so I got to experience authentic Valencian dishes like paella and fideuà that I was sure could match any restaurant in taste and quality. She made us tortilla española, lentejas con chorizo, and a variety of tartas. I never had much desire to go to any restaurant over eating her cooking, but on the rare occasion that I did, I wanted to take full advantage of it by making sure I tried the most typical Valencian dishes possible. I always tried to order things I had seen on people’s tables as I walked past restaurants’ outdoor seating. In fact, that’s what got me started on the tostada with olive oil, tomato, and salt. I also tried patatas bravas after seeing them on many plates and I learned that jamón serrano and chocolate con churros were classic Spanish foods so I tried those, too.

It seems like a no-brainer to say, “Try traditional foods!”, but I found that not all of the traditional or popular foods are as well-known as paella, so sometimes I felt like it was better to discover them by observing what was on the plates of people around me. Yet again, the food was a window to the routine of the Valencians. Tostada and café con leche for breakfast, fideuà for lunch (especially on a Saturday or a Sunday), and tortilla española for dinner. Even something as simple as trying new food is a great way to get to know a new place.

Walking, going to the same café on a weekly basis, and trying the foods I saw the locals eating all served the same purpose for me. Now I see that the common factor was the people. By getting to know the Valencians, I got to know the Valencian culture. I learned the flow of the city not only by observing the daily habits of the people, but also taking part in them as much as I could through how I got places, where I went on a weekly basis, and even what I ate. I found that, by learning the simpler details of what’s important to a group of people, you can get to know their culture.

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Callie Schaden is currently an English and Spanish student at Cedarville University. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and has expanded her horizons in El Salvador and Valencia, Spain, two places which have given her a love for the Spanish language and a desire to continue learning outside of her native tongue.

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