“You make me feel as though a small, naked baby has shot me through the heart with a bow and arrow!”

So I have an Italian flat-mate, Chiara, who has been nothing less than an endless fountain of wisdom. She is functional in several different languages including though probably not limited to French, English, of course Spanish and her native language, Italian. Chiara has already been studying in Valencia via the European exchange program, Erasmus, for a semester and although she has spent most of my first month shut in her room studying, she has already managed to teach me a great deal of Spanish as well as cook several delicious meals. There are a few reasons for introducing Chiara at this juncture, one being that since her exams are over she will now most likely have a larger role of the cast of characters in this little production. The other main reason apart from her being awesome is that she has informed us that today, the 15th of February, is in fact Singles’ Day. This is a day in which those of us who did not get to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day in a traditional manner on the 14th of February (dinner, flowers, chocolates, PDA, etc…) get to celebrate being single and ready to mingle today! Sweet!

In spite of our newfound awareness of this glorious new holiday I find that it has now been rendered slightly anticlimactic in light of the Valentine’s Day festivities that were planned and executed by our group yesterday. This is going to be something of a long-overdue ode to the positively stellar group of Rutgers students of which I have the profound privilege to be a part. Vanessa really spearheaded the whole event and I must extend props to her especially. Just before the trip to AndalucĂ­a there was a Valentine’s Day conversation in which we realized that, having been in Spain for only a month, many having left their Significant Others behind in the States, Valentine’s Day had a very high probability of sucking. Naturally the inclination was to avoid a negative experience so we decided to launch a game of Secret Valentine. For the benefit of those who have never participated in any kind of variation of this game, I will explain:

Secret Valentine is a game played between a large group of people (for example 23 American exchange students). All names are put into a hat and drawn out. Secrecy is key. The person who draws your name is then supposed to leave you little tokens, notes, candies, clues etc. during the month of February leading up to Valentine’s Day. They are allowed to team up with people in order to get little gifts to you while maintaining secrecy and at an appointed time there is a gift exchange in which all Secret Valentines are revealed. Price limits are set for gifts so no one can go too over-the-top and the game is actually more about getting pampered, surprised and delighted rather than getting anything truly spectacular.

There are many different variations of this game with different rules and in honor of different holidays, but this is the way we played. To top it all off, Vanessa made a reservation at an Italian restaurant in Valencia which turned out to be excellent! We all dressed up (including the boys!) and had a lovely dinner. I’m sure the restaurant HATED us because we were such a huge group of people, but I think everyone ended up having a good time. The two boys from the year program that have already been here for a semester showed up too, and Chiara put in an appearance as well. It says something about the quality of people our group that this dinner went so well. Everyone participated in the game, everyone picked extremely nice presents for the gift exchange, and in general throughout this month I must say that our orientation group has completely surpassed all my expectations. I have been in groups like this before in various situations and there has always been some sort of division or social drama with cliques and outcasts. It is usually impossible for everyone to get along completely but in our group our biggest problem is that all 23 of us want to be together all the time. It is extremely difficult for 23 people to pack into the same restaurant or go together to the same club etc, but that’s the way we always seem to want to do it. We all like each other and get along! Of course everyone has their friends and people with whom they hang out more, but if someone wants to join in the philosophy seems to be “the more the merrier.”

Such cohesiveness in a situation like study abroad  is what you make of it. It would be dangerously easy to stay within this group of Americans for the entire semester in Spain thereby limiting contact with the locals and generally hindering Spanish language acquisition. This would most certainly be counterproductive and I intend to avoid confining myself to this circle of Rutgers students, but I also feel lucky that I have this network of support. Culture Shock is a powerful force and sometimes there are aspects of my life and feelings that I want to express that I simply do not yet have the skills to express in Spanish. For these times I have a host of people who truly get along living the same events and dealing with the same issues that I am. It is interesting to see the year-long guys join up with our group. Since there were only two of them, and they were two guys that may not have really spent time together otherwise, they had a completely different orientation experience than the jovial camaraderie that we have. I am curious to know which they prefer. Ultimately it is really up to me to choose what will be best for my experience here in Spain and I am thrilled to have such a genuine group of people here with me.

Although I have had some excellent Valentine’s Days in the past, V-Day 2008 was definitely one of the best. Sure Valentine’s Day is kitschy and commercialized and a little depressing to those without Significant Others…but thanks to Chiara now I know about Singles’ Day! And besides, who needs one Significant Other when you can celebrate with 24 amazing friends? I can only speak for myself, but I definitely felt the love.

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