SALAMANCA, SPAIN – In addition to two cathedrals, more than 3,000 bars, and the third oldest university in Europe, this semester Salamanca, Spain, is also home to me. I am studying Spanish language and culture with the University of Salamanca’s Cursos Internacionales program for 10 weeks. The 10 weekends should have given me enough time to see the country’s 10 other UNESCO-designated “Heritage of Humanity” cities, but after the sixth Spanish Gothic cathedral they all begin to look the same.
However, parts of the atmosphere and culture here still surprise me every day. Though the immense influence of the Catholic church has shaped the Spanish way of life for most of the past millennium, it has started to loosen its grip at least in this part of the country.
The only obvious manifestation of this country’s religious history, besides gigantic stone churches in every city center, is that there are fewer dark-skinned people here than you would expect to see in Nebraska. But that’s a sizeable manifestation when you consider the entire peninsula was occupied by Arabs for 800 years. Most of the people under 35 have traditional Catholic weddings but, beyond that, don’t associate themselves too much with an institution that backed the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, not to mention the Spanish Inquisition.
Students here are equally skeptical about politics. Though the recent presidential campaigns only lasted for two weeks, my younger teachers – as well as the students I’ve talked with – express the feeling that all of the candidates are incapable of making beneficial changes and are controlled by money anyway. As one politics major put it, “In Europe we have thousands of years of scandals, corruption and politics. We don’t expect to find a solution in the next election.”
But for every milliliter of apathy toward religion, politics, getting rich, and other standard American motivations, the students here have an entire vodka bottleful of fervor for partying. A few hundred of the city’s 3,000 bars (that’s a lot of bars for a city with only 160,000 people) are open until 6 a.m. or 8 a.m. in the morning on Tuesdays and on weekends, which start on Thursday. This is a phenomena that occurs all over Spain, and reaches its height during frequent religious festivals when it’s popular to drink and party all day as well.
But there is plenty of learning happening, too. The University of Salamanca, founded in 1218, has an outstanding law program and draws thousands of students from all over Europe. My roommates – one French, one Spanish, and three German – spend the afternoons studying and are always complaining about not being able to go out “hasta las tantas” because of the frequent exams.