Anelise NEWMAN FS2016-17, MIT | to Spain
I didn’t fully realize how much Madrid had changed me until I was back in the United States. I remember the twinge of unease I felt as I stepped out of Logan Airport and glimpsed the supposedly familiar vista of Boston’s skyscrapers over the Charles River. I was surprised at how scintillating, how geometric the skyline was.
European riverscapes are short, irregular, and romantic; every building has a different shape, color, and century of birth. You can learn a lot about a town just by explaining the skyline. Up until this IAP, I have always considered Boston one of the most charming, quaint, historical cities I’ve visited. But that night I remember thinking how overwhelmingly modern, new, efficient—and, in some sense, limited— that glittering steel landscape seemed.
Before my trip to Europe it didn’t really sink in how “new” the U.S. is. At one point, I was talking to a European tour guide and made a comment about how Harvard has been in Cambridge for “basically forever”. He replied, unimpressed, “By forever, you mean, like, the 1600s?” I realized that I had used “forever” in the American sense—that by the time my country had been founded, cities like Madrid already had centuries of history under their belts. But when I walked out of Logan airport that night, it finally hit me how Boston was a wholly modern city. It had grown up in this little temporal niche of the second half of the second millennium. My whole culture, my whole society, my whole life was a reflection of the most recent fractional slice of human history.
So it’s not surprising that in some ways, being in Europe made the United States seem superficial. Spanish history is amazingly complex and rich because of the waves of different peoples that have swept over its territory across centuries. It is not uncommon to find buildings whose sites were scouted out by the Romans, that were then turned into Arab palaces or fortresses, that were then seized by the Spanish monarchy and rebuilt or elaborated by successive dynasties. For instance, 25 minutes outside of Madrid by train is the town of Toledo, known as the “city of three cultures” because of the Moorish, Jewish, and Christian influence evident in its history and architecture. The Alcazar of Toledo, the most prominent building in the city, used to be a Roman military structure. It was occupied by the Goths and the Moors, and was successively restored by a long line of Spanish monarchs. Most recently, it suffered damage in the Spanish Civil War and one wall had to be reconstructed. Each of the four edifices of the building are slightly different because of the temporal patchwork of construction that went into the modern structure. And it’s still in use—it currently houses the Museo del Ejército and admits hundreds of visitors per day. But even the mundane buildings in Europe have a level of intricacy not found in the U.S. The Banco de Espana in Madrid looks like Gringott’s bank. The churches are gorgeous masterpieces. Even the small Instituto Internacional where my classes were held had a picturesque central stairwell ringed with marble handrails and wrought banisters—a far cry from the infinite corridor. The cityscape of Madrid is a beautiful compilation of centuries of artisans’ manhours poured into a landscape that has been occupied for millennia, unlike the hastily constructed skyscrapers of the United States. Every building in Europe must be understood in the context of an incomprehensible breadth of history and culture.
On the other hand, visiting Europe also taught me how quickly time can create a sense of distance from historical occurrences, and how fallacious this perspective can be. After my class in Madrid, I visited the Tower of London, where a gruesome history of torture and execution has been turned into a medieval-themed tourist attraction. It is one thing to gawk at the execution site of Anne Boleyn 500 years ago; but when you consider that prisoners were executed in the tower as recently as WWII, the symbolism of the fortress is less easy to shrug off. Walking around the enormous grounds of Versailles, I was amazed to realize that 200 years ago, I, a “commoner”, would never have been allowed access to this monarchical hideaway. In the Palacio Real in Madrid, where the royal family still spends some of their time, there is a huge, mind-bending painting of the currently royal family dressed, not in fur and jewels, but in clean-cut suits and bussinesswear—looking a lot like some First Family of the United States. In the basement of the tax building in London, there’s a whole museum dedicated to Winston Churchill’s desperate efforts to prevent Hitler’s capture of England, and many of London’s buildings carry bomb scars from the Blitz. And Spain is so often mentioned as a forward-looking EU country that I was shocked to learn that until the 70s—barely 40 years ago—it was a dictatorship under Franco, something that still scars the Spanish psyche. The examples go on and on. Often, lucky as we are to live in the Western World in the 21st century, the eras of absolute monarchy and violent territorialism seem consigned to the past. They’re really not that far away. As a resident of the United States, I sometimes take for granted the relative freedom, safety, and stability we enjoy. But maintaining, not to mention extending, the progress that we’ve managed so far towards civil liberties and equality, will require exertion and vigilance.
And in some ways, witnessing the history of Europe made me proud to be from the United States. Visiting some of the European palaces, like Versailles and the Palacio Real, I was proud that the United States has never really supported a hereditary aristocracy; that to an unprecedented extent, our country has revered merit and rewarded concrete action over blood. I am proud that in the middle of a country so homogenous that even I, a white woman of European descent, stood out for being pale, I was traveling and taking classes with a group of people from all different ethnic backgrounds. And I’m proud that though America might not have the glorious palaces and cathedrals of Europe, we have our own brand of forward-looking architecture. Most of the construction I saw in Europe revolved around restoring old buildings, as evinced by the scaffolding covering the Banco de España or the cranes towering over the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. By contrast, the construction in Cambridge is cutting-edge and forward looking, as we develop the biotech infrastructure in Kendall Square and build the state-of-the-art MIT nano in the middle of our own campus. In some ways, the youth of the United States has liberated it from the baggage of previous centuries. As a country, we have been free to strike out on a new political, economic, and social path.
Learning more about Europe’s past has given me a lot more perspective on where I stand in the grand scheme of world history and culture. Living as an MIT student in the United States in the 21st century, I exist in a new, brilliant window of history. With my education and the spirit of freedom, safety and progressivism present currently in the United States, I have the tools to influence the technological and social development of the world. I also know that this opportunity is delicate and unprecedented. Recent technology has amplified enormously the power of a single person with a laptop; recent social developments have made it possible for me as a woman to have access to the opportunities and resources I need to influence the world. I couldn’t do 50 years ago what I can do today. I am really lucky to live where and when I am. At the same time, it is my hope and my responsibility to ensure that history keeps moving forward in such a way that someone living in 4034 looks back at my situation and sees it more as the norm than the exception.
In addition to teaching me more about my own culture, being in Madrid impacted me more directly. My Spanish improved a lot. I didn’t realize it at the time, because while in Madrid all I could think about was how much more I had to learn to be at the same level as the native speakers. But after returning to the United States, I realized how much more easily I could carry on a conversation and how much more comfortable I felt speaking Spanish. I used to shy away from Spanish conversations because I was self-conscious about my intermediate level; now, I seek out discussions in Spanish because I’m eager to practice what I’ve learned. I now consider myself truly conversational in Spanish.Furthermore, speaking Spanish in Madrid made me realize how valuable knowing other languages is, especially compared to my peers who only spoke English. Knowing Spanish was like a superpower I could use to communicate with people who had very little in common with me. In fact, I would say being bilingual is one of the most useful academic skills I’ve ever learned. This has encouraged me to not only continue practicing my Spanish, but also to start learning another language at MIT—French. I took some French in high school but never got to a conversational level. I am currently taking French IV and after this class plus a conversation class, I think my French level will be comparable to my Spanish. Not only do I enjoy learning the linguistic quirks of a new idiom, but I am so excited to get to apply my new skill in a real setting. I’ve got my eye on France for next IAP!
Finally, one incredible advantage of IAP Madrid that I did not expect was the great friendships I made while I was abroad. At the beginning of January, I knew barely anyone in the program. Now, I am friends with everyone in my conversation class, and I have formed very close bonds with the group of people I traveled with on weekends. Living in a different country and having the shared experience of exploring unfamiliar surroundings together, I formed relationships with people so much more quickly than I do at MIT. Furthermore, I met people in different years, different majors, and different living situations that I never would have met normally on campus. I feel like my social circle has expanded so much, and that is a really valuable takeaway for me.
Going to Spain for IAP has profoundly impacted my perspective on myself and my culture, my academic path, and the relationships I am forming at MIT. I am so grateful to you for making this trip possible. I feel like I have grown as a global citizen and as an MIT student in ways that would not have been possible without your generous help. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.