Spoiler: If you’ve been getting tired of my long-windedness so far, just jump to the end of this post for a really awesome intro video made by the students at UPF!

Today, Wednesday January 12, I was extremely pleased to not be that rushed in the morning. The first item on my agenda was my first IES Abroad orientation class at 12:25 in the afternoon, so I finally had time to sleep in this morning and begin recuperating from jet lag. Since I wasn’t rushing anywhere, it also gave me more time to appreciate all the little things about our apartment home for the next four months.

It’s a cosy fit, but our abode is very nicely laid out and comfortable. We’re on the top floor #4 of the building, what Barcelonans call the “atic.” There’s also a “superatic” which is the penthouse, and the ground floor is actually zero. Elevator buttons are really confusing in this city. The IES center building elevators themselves have a button for 0, the ground lobby, E, the “solarium” which is basically a stair landing, and finally the regular numbers. Floor “1″ is really the 3rd off the ground. Takes some getting used to.

Back to our apartment though: You open our door with an old fashioned Harry Potter-esque key and lock, and have an entryway of sorts (was still replete with Nativity scene and decorated christmas tree when I first arrived), and immediately on the right is a short hallway with a coat closet, and my room is at the end of that. I have a bookshelf, desk, decent office chair, wardrobe, more dresser drawers than I have belongings, mirror, nightstand, several lamps, a ceiling fan, and firm but comfy bed. My window can open fully to the atrium – makes a bit of an echo chamber, but the roof is ventilated so I always have fresh air and can tell what time of day it is or if the sun’s out by how much light is coming through. No view aside from other inside apartment windows and the atrium though. No matter, as I actually really like the interior decoration of my room: maps! Two huge, detailed Michelin maps of Europe and España are on opposite walls, and they provide me endless minutes of wonderment. One wall also has a thumbtack-board type material, and below the window is a cool angular/circle drawing that one of Fernanda’s children did years ago. Also, I have a curved, dome-like ceiling, and parquet-pattern wood floors. Can you get any more European?

Aside from my room, we have Fernanda’s bedroom, a small den/TV room, combined dining/living room, 2 bathrooms (1 with shower), Scott/Jeff’s room, and a small kitchen, where the laundry machine is. Fernanda does 2 loads a week for each of us. This is more luxurious than Haverford. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to go back.

The building itself feels kinda beton brut brutalism that makes me think post-Franco 1970s, but has an Art Noveau form and features to it that make me think 1930/40s. I like it. We have an outside courtyard-overhang area at the front door, and are situated at the corner of a three-way intersection with Plaça Artòs at the opposite corner.

I had to quit admiring architecture at some point: there were orientations to attend and routines to establish. Not wasting any time I took a shower and got dressed. Once again thankful that I decided to unpack everything that first day, I picked out one of my favorite, blue, it-looks-like-I’m-wearing-an-undershirt-but-I-fooled-you-its-just-a-second-collar long sleeves, put on a belt (because they’re classy in Europe), and chowed some breakfast. Once again, I have to rave about Boulé brand Mermelada Extra Fresa. Who knew the Germans could take simply strawberries, sugar, pectin, and citric acid, and make a fruit jelly that tastes better than anything that has ever graced my mouth before? Why don’t we have marmelade this good in the States? I might have to import it if it comes to that.

I made the six minute walk to the Ferrocarriles station, and 12 minutes after that I was at Plaça Catalunya for the first time. Like any deserving European city worth its salt, Barcelona has a grand central plaza that is always fun to see in every weather condition at every time of day. Catalunya’s specialties include the huge five pointed marble star in the center (huge as in it literally almost takes up the whole plaza), the mountains upon mountains (there are more than you’re used to seeing in a city) of pigeon flocks that walk, land, fly, and torpedo in the center, the Caja Madrid to the north, El Corte Inglés to the east, FNAC to the west, and Las Ramblas and the Ciutat Vella to the south.

I knew the general direction of where the IES Center was, and after passing over it twice, I got a clue and entered the giant swinging door that a bunch of students were standing in front of. It’s a standard office building, shared with translations.com and a few other companies; whereas I was expecting something more educational. I stepped in the aforementioned confusing elevator, guessed on a number, and found my orientation classroom on one of the three floors IES has at Ronda Sant Pere, 5. Yes, they also put the building number after the street in Spain.

The building might be staid, but the IES floors are anything but: with bright blue carpet, red chairs, and walls painted a screaming playful rich chartreuse, just by walking in you feel cool and hip. The 10 or so of us in SP350 Advanced Intensive Spanish Grammar, collected in the room and made introductions. Folks from Penn State, Illinois, DC, and Cornell – and me, the lone Haverfordian. Our orientation instructor walked in and began speaking Castellano, and explained since we were the “advanced” group, of course we were prepared to handle orientation entirely in Spanish. Gulp. I was very glad, however, to notice a prolonged wave of panicked looks, gulps, and nail-biting around the room after this announcement from the other students. Maybe I placed myself in the right class after all.

This first class involved an introductory activity where we talked to the person next to us, made a nametag for them, and presented their personality for them to the class, the world-renowned, Grammy-nominated, classic Powerpoint presentation, “How not to get Pickpocketed, and Other Useful Safety Information,” a thoroughly mediocre video about our “Study Tour” to Valencia in 2 weeks, and ever-crucial WiFi security codes.

After un hora y media, we were free, and thank goodness, because we were all hungry by 2pm. I stuck with two other kids from my class, Ryan and Nathalie, and met their respective roommates Jacki and John on the sidewalk outside, where we debated where to go for lunch. Jacki had to go back to the IES center at 4 for a make up orientation, and I had to go back at 5 for my UPF orientation. We decided on a thoroughly-touristy-priced tapas place on the other side of El Corte Inglés, Café Kilimanjaro.

At 4:00, Jacki went back to IES, and the rest of us wandered all the way down Las Ramblas, me for the first time. Having read about this street in the research for my 20-page research paper comparing Barcelona’s and London’s port renovations and evolutionary stages last year, and knowing how central a feature it has always been in the city’s history, I was excited to see it – but more than a bit cautious of the pickpocketing IES had warned us about. Our walk was uneventful, aside from noticing the horror of a Dunkin’ Donuts in front of La Boquería market, and at the end we arrived at the Passeig de Colom and the beginnings of the port. Situated in the middle of a roundabout intersection with Las Ramblas and the Passeig, an extremely tall Corinthian column topped with a statue of Christopher Columbus commemorates the spot where Columbus returned to Spain to report back to Ferdinand and Isabella the results of his voyage to the “New” World. Theoretically, the statue’s arm points west to the Americas, but in actuality it points east. Sculptors of antiquity would have done well to take a geography class.

Unlike Columbus, walking over the boardwalk toward the Moll d’Espanya we weren’t discovering new land for the first time, but a new sea: the Mediterranean. On this pier in the middle of the port with today’s sunny and cloud-free weather, the water was a shining navy blue, ever so slightly rippled from the sea breeze coming in. Looking all around the port area – from the Barceloneta district, the new W hotel, the Balearic ferries coming into the dock, sailboats heading out, the towering hill of Montjuïc, the ornate Baroque administration buildings of the port and other antiques on the waterfront, and the modern Mare Magnum shopping center behind us – I took in that singular source of activity and advantage Barcelona has always had and rival Madrid has never been able to surmount. There is just something exciting about port cities that elevates them above all the rest, particularly those in the Mediterranean. While the rest of Europe was being generally barbaric, here on the Mediterranean, in Barcelona, Genoa, Naples, Valencia, Marseilles, and Nice, the Renaissance set its first sparks and the very first communicative and commercial “network” of cities arose hundreds of years before anything like fiber optic cable or airplanes were on the drawing board. To me, it’s exciting to imagine what it would have been like to stand on the top floor of the Customs Office and look out over Barcelona’s waterfront in the 15-1700′s, to experience the sounds and sights of that early transportation infrastructure and primitive but ingenuous technology, listen to the stories and knowledge sailors and captains told of lands they had just come from, read the original newspapers first printed daily to detail what cargoes were arriving and departing, and witness the financial and political power that came with access to the growing trade and commerce. Somehow sending a package by UPS or FedEx today, though still rather amazing when you think about it, just doesn’t convey that same sense of wonder as an early port might have.

My daydream was interrupted by the realization that I had to be back at the IES Center at 5 for my UPF orientation. The four of us began to walk back up Las Ramblas, me leading the way at a slightly faster pace than everyone else because I was anxious about time. I need not have worried, though, as when I got to the third floor I was astounded to find close to 80 other students waiting in a room for several minutes. One of the IES deans came to the front of the room and explained that we would actually be heading down to the UPF by Metro, where their staff would give us an orientation. As we came to the Plaza Urquinaona metro stop, it became apparent that several students hadn’t even bought Metro cards yet! I smiled internally, grateful that I had attended my first UPF class and “been there and done all this” yesterday morning. I talked to some students who had known their classes at the business school had started yesterday, but hadn’t been lucky enough to have a host as generous as mine to orient them, and they simply didn’t attend. Other students were completely shocked by the realization that their classes had already started. Meanwhile, here I was talking to them about the combination bar/cafeteria in each building, how massive the courtyards were, which metro stop we were going to, and all the other I’m-a-super-knowitall details.

We were herded into a stadium-like classroom in the Roger de Lluria building, and at every seat was one of the big glossy red UPF folders (with international student info inside) I had seen on the subway yesterday! Yay, carry one of these around and I look like a local! UPF’s International Director talked to us from the front of the room, and aside from showing everyone how to use the “Aula Global,” the UPF version of the online class Blackboard software (again, been here done this), I quickly realized that “orientation” meant “university advertisement where we talk about how great we are,” for the most part. From 5-7pm in the afternoon, when we were all hungry and tired, this got to be pretty boring. I started flipping through the more-interesting information in the folder, the conversation level started rising and there was a lot of “hush hush, we need to tell you more about how many degree programs we have this is important” from the front. The one high point was at the end, where they showed us a thoroughly hilarious full-length music video hundreds of UPF students had put together as a way to “say hello”:

I think I’m gonna like it at the UPF.