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Uniting strangers in Spain

by The Concordian October 2, 2018
Uniting strangers in Spain

Students share their memories of a summer exchange program.

Our first day on the University of Santiago de Compostela campus began with rain dripping down our eager faces. In those first moments, we were strangers, but soon enough we became friends sharing umbrellas.

As the international exchange director shared information about the facilities on campus in Spanish, I looked around me and saw a vast green space and beautiful architecture carved in warm gray stone. No amount of rain could wipe the smile off my face. Here I was, in a foreign country, where I couldn’t understand a single word the director said. Yet, I felt a thirst for unforgettable adventures.

To describe the life-changing effect Spain had on me, I would need a room filled with quirky nonsensical phrases, best friends dancing to Reggaeton music and Galician culinary delights. It was truly a sensory experience, where gardens invaded Momo’s pub and floral jasmine flowers intoxicated us during long Spanish fiestas. Although I wish the six weeks had stretched on for years, I know I enjoyed every moment.

The St. James Festival comes to mind, a celebration of one of Jesus’s apostles and the patron saint of the famous pilgrimage route, Camino de Santiago, which dates back to the ninth century. University students, mothers, school children and religious devotees from all over the world walk for days, possibly months to see the baroque, Renaissance and Romanesque stone cathedral, which is said to contain the relics of St. James.

This grandiose cathedral marks one of the final destinations of this medieval pilgrimage route, therefore pilgrims can often be found in the central square staring up at the monument in triumph.

The festival is the busiest time of the year for Santiago de Compostela, with crowds of sweaty, proud and exuberantly smiling people ready to celebrate life, hardship and faith. The town did not disappoint with its free, public events that promote perseverance and Spain’s love for celebration. Every night, musicians of every genre performed throughout the old city. I heard everything from afrobeats to flamenco guitar players to famous feminist rappers.

During that time, the daylight hours were filled with traditional Galician costume competitions, food from the Atlantic Ocean and fringe political rallies. The nights were a different story. Whether we drank delicious Galician beer at a free show or watched fireworks from the park near the university, we embraced the famous Spanish phrase “La vida son dos días,” or ‘Life is two days.’ Its meaning is that we should enjoy the moments we have because they may be our last (or perhaps it means everyday is like a weekend… I am still trying to figure it out).

Now the clear night sky reflects the shining faces of my estrellas—the stars I discovered on my pilgrimage to embrace divine youth.

– Melodie Ratelle, Contributor

The Santiago Cathedral. Photo by Milagros Lopez Daglio.

If I were to make a list of the greatest things in my life, my experience in Santiago de Compostela is probably in the top five.

I didn’t know I could find so much happiness in learning a new language. It’s mind blowing to be able to understand bits of conversations in Spanish when I walk Montreal’s streets now.

I also wasn’t involved in student life prior to this adventure, and I seldom interacted with students from other faculties.
Santiago was gorgeous, with the most wonderful atmosphere. Rather than being filled with tourists posing for their social media accounts, people took photos to remind themselves of their arrival at the end of a long pilgrimage. People came from all over the world to end up at the Santiago Cathedral. Smiles and laughter were everywhere as people reveled in their accomplished journeys.
I know I will visit Santiago de Compostela again because there really is something special there. I can’t thank the peers who joined me on this trip enough for bringing something I was missing into my life. ¡Salud!

Adriana Schwinghamer, Contributor

It’s checked off my bucket list. I can now say I lived in Spain for six weeks, and immersed myself in Santiago de Compostela. Before leaving for Spain, I was most looking forward to meeting strangers. In particular, strangers I hoped would become family. Although I was afraid of getting my hopes up, I did, and the people I met defied my expectations. It’s as if we were hand picked to get along.

The day I passed by the Santiago Cathedral for the first time, I was blown away. It felt incredibly powerful to stand in front of a carved structure dating back to 1211. Every day, we passed by it, and every day I felt the same. I never got over its beauty and power. I don’t know how locals are able to see it daily without stopping to stare at its glory.

Yes, this was my first time living on my own, and it was a wonderful challenge. However, beyond that, I learned lessons I wasn’t expecting. The international students in our class were from Japan and South Korea, from Europe and North America. Not only did I learn about the Spanish culture and customs, but I also gained knowledge about Asian traditions and culture—while conversing in Spanish. Since none of us spoke to each other in our mother tongue, this exchange of information was mind blowing.

My minor is in Spanish, so I had the incredible experience of being able to understand some Galician, thanks to the language I started learning seven years ago. I can also say that the province of Galicia is the most underrated place in Spain. Its beaches are beautiful, the food is impeccable and it’s a unique part of Spanish culture seldom discussed in the media.

Travelling is one of the best ways to meet and learn about new people. There is no routine when you’re in a new city. You ask yourself the same question every morning: “Where do I go today?” The concha, or seashell, is synonymous with Santiago. Those who complete the pilgrimage to the cathedral hold one because it symbolizes rebirth. This whole experience was a concha for me.

Mia Anhoury, News Editor

Graduation day. Photo by Mia Anhoury.

When I started university, many friends told me about the wonders of studying abroad. “You have to do it, Phil. It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” they would tell me. And so I dreamed of it. I dreamed of the opportunity to travel, to learn in a new environment.
Unfortunately, in my athletic therapy program, studying abroad is not an option. So, there went my dreams of travelling during my degree—until I stumbled upon the Concordia in Spain program.
It was my only opportunity to study abroad since the program is offered during the summer. A six-week intensive nine-credit course focused on learning Spanish; could I ask for anything better?
For me, it was an opportunity to meet people from different programs and schools around the world. I now have friends in New York, Houston, Seoul, Taichung and, of course, Santiago de Compostela.
Did I mention the food in Galicia is amazing? Because it is. I highly recommend the pulpo (octopus).
The University of Santiago de Compostela is also perfectly located. It’s close to the top destinations in the city, whether it’s Alameda Park, the Santiago Cathedral or Momo, a pub with the most beautiful terrace you could imagine. I can also read and speak in Spanish now, which feels incredible.

-Philippe Brunet, Contributor

Philippe Brunet and Vincent Letarte on a day trip to Finisterre, the end of the Camino of Santiago. Photo courtesy of Vincent Letarte.


As a musician, my favourite part of this experience was the St. James Festival. I had the chance to see amazing live concerts and share these moments with the people I met there. The cultural scene really enriched my learning experience in Santiago de Compostela.

Vincent Letarte, Contributor

My experience in Spain will mark me for the rest of my life.
I applied to the program hoping to learn some Spanish and travel, but I came out of it with much more. I lived and studied alongside incredible people with very different backgrounds and personalities. We grew closer as the program progressed, and I made friendships I hope will last a lifetime.
The classes were very interactive and included students from across the world. The weekend excursions and university-organized cultural activities taught me so much about not only the language, but the culture as well. And living in Spain allowed us to experience the culture first hand—I don’t think many of us had trouble getting accustomed to the daily siestas after class.
Santiago de Compostela, a small university city with a rich history, was the perfect location for the program. We had the chance to visit the Santiago Cathedral, travel a section of the Camino de Santiago and take part in the St. James Festival throughout the month of July. We also experienced World Cup soccer games in the small pubs around town, and celebrated a couple of birthdays (including mine).
For me, this was a chance to break out of a routine and develop my independence. It was my first experience living and traveling on my own. Despite being away from my family, I never felt alone; I always had my Spain family with me.
Leaving Santiago was bittersweet, and I couldn’t have asked for a better summer.

                                                                                                                                   – Matthew Di Nicolantonio, Contributor

Santiago has an incredible nightlife because of its student and traveler populations. There are plenty of bars and music venues to suit many tastes. Revelry in a park celebrating the Day of the Apostle Santiago. Photo courtesy of Vincent Letarte.



As I sit in a busy Starbucks on a chilly fall day, I find myself transported back to my summer in Spain. Flashbacks to hot afternoons filled with rich ice cream and adventures around the city put a nostalgic smile on my face.
There was something in the air of Santiago de Compostela that made me believe anything was possible. I loved wandering around, hoping I would discover a hidden treasure around every street corner. Alas, no treasure was uncovered. However, I found better. Lovely friends, amazing professors and a truly incredible program coordinator; these are the people who made my trip so memorable.
I was going through a rough time this summer, but the people I met in Spain allowed me to focus on the beautiful things in life. And boy, is there a lot of beauty in Galicia! Everything from the food and breathtaking landscapes to the rich history and Galician language had a unique Celtic enchantment to it.
Although I now live with a bit of la morriña—a nostalgic feeling specific to those who leave the magical region of Galicia—I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Jeanne Kural Chastenay, Contributor

I was able to see and experience so much of this Galician city and I am left wanting more. I can’t describe the overall experience without mentioning the people who accompanied me on this adventure, as they made it all the more worthwhile. The beauty of going on exchange and not knowing anyone is that everyone else is in the same position as you. It was truly amazing to not only discover new places, but also form friendships that may never have materialized back in Montreal. We were all incredibly different, but the mere fact of being in the same wonderful little part of Spain gave us that much more in common.

 – Olivia Salembier, Contributor

Here are tips I wish I was told before going on exchange:

  • Take advantage of the cheap transportation in Europe; take a train to the beach after class or visit a nearby town for an afternoon.
  • Shop locally for food and clothes.
  • Try the seafood—it tastes like the ocean!
  • Eat at the cafeteria and go out after dinner for tapas to avoid spending too much on food.
  • Go to free concerts organized by the city of Santiago.
  • Go on the tours organized by the university; you see a lot more than you would on your own.
  • Talk to locals and practice your Spanish.
  • Take advantage of the gym facilities.
  • Plan weekend trips with your new friends to neighbouring cities like Madrid or Porto.

  -Vanessa Recine, Contributor


I cannot think of a better way to symbolize my summer in Spain than with the concha. It is as though I have been refreshed and refuelled with passions and desires that were previously lacking in my life. The friendships I’ve made and the journeys I experienced while abroad will forever impact how I approach the rest of my life. This exchange reminded me why it is so important to chase my dreams with everything I have; as the Spanish say, “La vida son dos días” (“Life is two days”).

Lianna Della Vecchia, Contributor

Traditional Galician folk band singing and dancing in Alameda park. Photo by Melodie Ratelle.

No words or pictures can describe my experience during the six weeks studying abroad in Santiago. I spent time with amazing people and created friendships. I also had the chance to visit numerous picturesque places in northern Spain and Galicia, and learn a lot about the culture. The loveliest teachers taught me Spanish—a beautiful language that I am now obsessed with. Of course, how can I forget la comida muy rica, or the very rich food. I still can’t stop thinking about all the mariscos, or seafood, even our cafeteria’s fries that were served at least once a day. ¡Me encanta, España! I adore Spain.

– Natalija Jurkute, Contributor

Graphic by Ana Bilokin.

Written by Melodie Ratelle, Philippe Brunet, Vincent Letarte, Adrianna Schwinghamer , Nalia Jurkute, Olivia Salembier, Lianna Della Vecchia, Vanessa Recine, Matthew Di Nicolantonio, Jeanne Kural Chastenay, and Mia Anhoury.




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