Alumni Spotlight: Katie Bollag


Katie Bollag grew up in the South in Augusta, Georgia, but journeyed up northward to New Haven, Connecticut, to spend her college years at Yale University. She is a biology major and plans to attend veterinary school in the near future. At the age of 20, she decided it was time to start exploring the world on her own, so she attended the IES Abroad Madrid Summer program in Madrid, Spain, from May 19 to June 28, in 2014.

Tell us about any interesting cultural tidbits you noticed about your country.

Katie: I’d only been in Spain for about a week before I felt comfortable drawing conclusions about the differences between Spanish and American culture

One of the most significant differences for me was in terms of meal times: they eat a light breakfast as soon as they wake up (around 8), eat lunch (“almuerzo” or “comida”) around 3, and then eat dinner between 8 and 10. There was such a huge gap between breakfast and lunch that always had my stomach grumbling, and then dinner just seemed so late.

People-to-people interactions also differed. On average, Madrileños seemed friendlier than most people I’ve encountered in the United States. For example, every person I passed in my apartment building told me “hola” even though my face was entirely new to them. Additionally, Spaniards have a much smaller personal bubble. For example, I was having an involved conversation with an American friend while standing a normal distance from him in a store. But apparently, the employees commented on how far apart we were standing.

Some other miscellaneous things. Alcohol is a large part of the culture – the drinking age is 18; alcoholic drinks are much cheaper; drinking seems to be much more casual; and bars are very commonplace, especially as a hang-out for friends. Discotecas (Spanish dance clubs) are the night scene; the partying always lasts until at least 3am but often all the way until 6am. Futbol (soccer) is also a huge part of the culture (though it is for much of Europe).

Describe a goal you set and how you went about accomplishing it.

Katie: As my first venture abroad alone, I sincerely wanted to make the most of my time in Madrid. To do so, my goal was to visit a new place around Madrid every day. At the beginning of the program, the IES Abroad staff arranged the trips to explore Madrid, so I was able refine my ability to navigate Madrid before I started venturing out on my own.

Then I did research online to determine all of the recommended places around Madrid, both well-known and slightly more obscure, and I made a list. Every day I made a trip to one of the locations on my list (often recruiting the company of my friends).

The more well-known places I visited in Madrid include: Palacio Real, Templo de Debod, Prado Museum, Parque del Retiro, Reina Sofia, Puerta del Sol, the Botanical Gardens, el Rastro (Sunday flea market), and Santiago Bernabeu (the Real Madrid soccer stadium).

Some of the less well-known places include: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the teleferico (skyline), the Madrid river, the Chueca neighborhood, Teatro Real, Parque el Capricho San Gines Chocolateria, a Madrid movie theater, and Parque de Attraciones (amusement park).

Did you run into a language barrier? Did you ever think you knew more/less of the language?

Katie: I have taken Spanish classes since elementary school, so I was exceedingly excited for the opportunity finally to use my language skills in a practical situation. I was always able to read and write as necessary to explore the city. However, I learned very quickly at the beginning of my trip that my speaking was slow compared to natives, so initially any Spaniard I talked to had to be patient while I got my point across.

This was the extent of the language barrier I encountered. Additionally, I discovered that many Spaniards wanted to practice their own English – this meant that I spoke Spanish less than I might have wanted to otherwise. Nevertheless, it was very satisfying to communicate with my Spanish.

What was the best place you visited outside of your home-base city?

Katie: As great as Madrid was, I definitely enjoyed visiting Barcelona. Madrid was perfect as a home-base to study and explore all of its historical sites, and Barcelona acted as the perfect get-away vacation location. I took on a short flight with several friends of mine from the program from Madrid to Barcelona, and we stayed in a hostel for the weekend.

While there, we visited Sagrada Familia (the unfinished cathedral), Parque Guell (the mosaic park), the Gothic quarters, and the beach. It gave us the opportunity to experience a different (and even more touristy) part of Spain.