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I’m walking back from the metro on my way home from class and everyone is staring at me. At first, I attribute it to random eye contact with strangers, but as I kept walking it was getting worse. Everyone I passed looked at me. I was wondering if it had something to do with what I was wearing, but looking around it didn’t seem like I was wearing anything out of the ordinary.

Maybe it was because I was wearing headphones, yet I could see in the distance that others were too. I even looked in a window to check if anything was stuck in my teeth. Nothing. So what was going on? I tried forgetting about it, but couldn’t shake the feeling of being looked at like an outsider. I kept looking for clues until I finally found one. Without fail, every time I passed someone on the sidewalk they stared at me, along with the rest of the people on the street. After my realization, I started slowing down, and sure enough, the stares stopped. I never would have guessed that the way I walked would be what outed me as an American during my semester abroad in Barcelona.

It’s been a month since the semester started, and I’m finally at the point where I can stop freaking out and take in everything around me. The initial shock of being in a completely new city is over, which gives me the time to learn what it means to be Catalan. Oddly, this included walking much, much slower than I ever did back home, even if I was in a hurry. People don’t just walk here, they stroll. They take in the city for all its worth. The air, the sounds, the smells and most importantly, the sunshine that seems never-ending. I’m sure it comes to no surprise to many people that the Spanish like to take their time with things. Being associated with beaches, relaxation, and siestas must involve a slower pace of life, but to me, these stereotypes don’t quite fit the picture. No, to me, it’s all about stress.

For all of the flak Spanish people get for taking it too easy or not being concerned with punctuality I think they’re onto something, especially when it comes to managing their stress. Of course this is a huge generalization and no blanket statement is going to apply to every person living in Barcelona, but even so, I think there are a few important things to learn here. No one’s life is perfect. No one has zero stress and not a thing to worry about. Barcelona is no different, and if it was, then everyone would live here. However, I think there really is a difference in how people view life here. It’s not that people here don’t have stress in their lives, it’s that they devote their time to appreciating all of the non-stressors in life. Maybe it’s my rose-tinted glasses, but I truly think people here know how to deal with stress better. Patrons in restaurants stay until they complete their meal, and then for a bit longer to finish the wine. If someone comes into a coffee shop, they sit and drink and enjoy every sip, not just shove a to-go sleeve on it and drain it before heading to work. Everyone has stressful lives, but it is the reaction to that stress that differentiates the Spanish from Americans.

I’m a college student, so naturally, I have a fair amount of stress in my daily life. Trying to balance all of the things expected from a student at a University is like trying to juggle a slew of knives, chainsaws, and swords while they’re all on fire. It’s not very fun. Stress has been a common feeling felt throughout most of my life, and as I’m sure most college students can agree, it takes a toll. The worst times for me are when I actually don’t have anything to do. I stress out during Winter Break when I don’t even have any homework or projects or exams looming over me. I’m not even in class and I keep thinking there’s something I’m forgetting to do or some deadline I’ve missed! If it’s hard for me to reduce my stress while I’m at home for break, you can imagine how I must be when I have actual work to do.

Which is exactly why it’s so surprising that I have been more relaxed in these last 4 weeks than I have been for most of my college career. Yet I have projects to do, papers to read, essays to write and exams I need to study for. Either I miraculously learned to deal with my stress while crossing the Atlantic, or there is something else at play here.

In America, I find that most of the time I’m rushing from one thing to another. Whether it’s class, meetings for clubs, or the library to start cramming for an exam, my entire life feels like it’s on fast forward. If I’m not moving fast, I’m losing time I could be studying or doing work. Everything that needs to be done is on a time schedule. I go to bed planning the next day so that I don’t have to waste time looking up where I need to go. A lot of my decision making revolves around changing my ‘free time’ into more time to be productive. If I can read an article for class while I’m eating a quick lunch why not? It’ll give me more time to code for my other class later. It would be one thing if I was the only one that did this, but I find my roommates going over slides or watching lectures online while they’re eating just as much as I do. If it’s not just me, it must have something to do with the University and American culture at large. This culture of competition and prioritization of work over relaxation creates an environment where if you aren’t bustling around all the time, you feel lazy. You feel left behind. You feel as if everyone is getting ahead but you.

One of the main things I’ve noticed from my time abroad has been the difference in these priorities. Markets in every neighborhood emphasize the regard for high-quality ingredients and the enjoyment of picking out your food. Tiny café’s, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and bars on every street display the love for sitting with friends for hours over food and drinks. People prioritize their free time here. When Americans think of work they think of competition for salaries and the best positions, Spaniards think of it as a means to be able to enjoy what life has to offer. People here aren’t always looking for more and more, they’re content with what they have, and prioritize their free-time instead of hours clocked in.

All of this culminates into why I think I’ve been able to live relatively stress-free for this month. I’ve tried to assimilate not only to the language and culture but also the worldview Spaniards hold. They don’t mind if they miss the bus or metro, there’s always the next one. Got to a restaurant right as it seats its last table? No worries, there’s a great restaurant across the street that still has room. Paying attention to these little things showed me there’s no need to worry about things outside of my control. Yes, you can’t control the fact that you have 3 exams and 2 projects due this week, but instead of wiring yourself up about it, know that this too shall pass. Take the time to enjoy your walk to class, or sit and eat your lunch and actually taste your food, not just shove it down. Sure there’s always going to be stressors in life and deadlines that need to be made, but it seems as though the people in Barcelona have found that while these are a given in life, the stress that accompanies it is not.

You can choose to worry constantly and obsessively refresh your inbox, or you can know that whatever it is, it can probably wait until after you’ve enjoyed your lunch. You can choose to rifle through the news on your commute, or you can take a look up and take time to breathe in the fresh air. You can anxiously plan every second of your day, or know that it’s impossible to plan everything, and the best thing to do is to learn to be flexible to change. These may sound like trivial changes but sure enough, they start to add up. By taking in life and appreciating the little things more we are telling our brain that it’s okay to turn off for a bit, and in turn saving ourselves from overstressing. So instead of racing to wherever you’re going thermos in hand, stop and look around once in a while. Sit and enjoy life’s moments of free time. Soon you’ll find that you’re more appreciative of life, and a lot less stressed out.

Osman Zuberi

Osman is from University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, and studied abroad at UAB during Spring 2018.

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