Study Abroad: Pamplona, Spain

Hello, readers. I am spending the next five months of my life in Pamplona, Spain. Throughout my time here I plan to create and post some form of story every week or two. This is to keep family and friends up to date, perhaps entertain a few others and sharpen my story-telling skills. Please enjoy this first article overviewing why I am here and how my travels to Spain went.

Ayuntamiento de Pamplona
Ayuntamiento de Pamplona, or Pamplona City Council, lit up with lights from the Christmas season.

First off, where is Pamplona and what am I doing here? Many of you may have never heard of Pamplona and the few that have probably only know it for San Fermín (“The Running of the Bulls”). Besides the famous festival, it is good to know that Pamplona is a city of just under 200,000 people located in the north east Spanish region of Navarra. It is approximately one hour south of coast and one hour west from the Pyrenees mountain range which run along the French border. It is also home to the Universidad de Navarra (UNAV) which is what brings me here.

My School of Media & Journalism (Mejo) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has an exchange program set up with UNAV. What this means is that each semester, three or four students from each university trade places. This allows these students to continue paying normal tuition at their home university and get credit towards their major, all while living and studying abroad. From January until May of 2019, I am one of those lucky students so I’ll be working extremely hard in some marketing classes and definitely not eating too many tapas or drinking too much wine.

At the beginning of the Fall 2018 semester I applied for this program. After my acceptance, I slowly completed small tasks along the way to prepare myself. Throughout the process, my excitement continued to grow. Knowing I would be in Spain the following semester made finishing out the Fall difficult, but I made it to winter break and will pick things up from there.

My journey really began at 7:00 am on December, 29 when I jumped on a plane from my home city of Asheville, NC to Newark, NJ. This flight served two purposes: to catch a cheaper flight from Newark and, primarily, to spend time with my girlfriend, Abigail, and her family in New Jersey before leaving the country.

After an amazing week with my girlfriend at her home, the time for goodbye came as we arrived at the Newark airport around 4:00 pm on January 4. After a tear-filled, drawn-out goodbye, I picked up my bags and headed in to check my ski bag and pass through security.

The flight departed at 6:00 that evening and lasted just over six hours which meant I would be arriving at my connecting airport in Lisbon, Portugal around 6:00 am after the time change. I flew with TAP Air Portugal and had a pleasant experience. My flight was affordable, comfortable and came with everything I needed plus some.

Each passenger had a tv with many entertainment options to choose from. While I watched Mission: Impossible – Fallout, a flight attendant delivered chicken pasta, served with a small salad, some sort of shrimp macaroni salad, bread and a cheesecake-like desert. I was surprised when my plane neighbor asked for a red wine and was not charged. I quietly asked my attendant, “Is wine…free?” She chuckled and answered yes while beginning to pour me a glass of red wine. The in-flight feast and glass of wine put me to sleep a few minutes after finishing.

While the dine-in movie experience was great, the highlight of the first flight was meeting my plane neighbor Evan, a graduate student originally from Central Pennsylvania. We spoke before takeoff and during the beginning of the flight. I learned that Evan also studied journalism during his undergraduate at West Virginia University. He was now pursuing his master’s in international relations at a university in Barcelona, Spain. Evan moved there to study but also to live with his wife, Melina, who was born in Ecuador but has lived in Barcelona for 18 years now.

I bumped into Evan several times between our arrival in Lisbon and our arrival in Barcelona. The latter proved to be key in my successful trip to Pamplona, my final destination. I caught Evan and Melina near the ground transportation in Barcelona. They were on their way to catch a train from the airport to Barcelona Sants, the main train station in the city. Evan knew I was going to the same place so he told me to follow along. As we were waiting for a train to the main station, I suddenly realized that it was past three and my real train departed at 3:30.

Our flight that was originally supposed to arrive before noon got delayed by nearly an hour and a half. This meant we would arrive at the train station about two minutes before my high speed train left for Pamplona. There was a small chance the train got delayed, so Melina told me to get ready to run with her. Once the doors opened at Barcelona Sants, we took off. I had nearly 100 lbs of luggage with me between my ski bag, ski boots, jam-packed carryon and small bag for my “personal item” (I was really pushing the baggage rules). Melina was running and I did my best to keep up with her. After a couple hundred yards my legs were burning and my back was sweaty but I had to keep pushing. After several minutes of running I knew the train would have left if it was on time but I held onto the chance of a delay. I finally arrived at the security check. When the security officer scanned my ticket, his device flashed red. The train had departed. Honestly, I was ok with that. I’d rather find out then as opposed to getting down to my train platform and just missing it.

Melina and Evan were then kind enough to help me figure out the next possible train to Pamplona. I exchanged numbers with Evan and hope to see him and his wife again during my time in Spain. After I had my new ticket, they left to catch their train home just outside of Barcelona.

After a short wait, I boarded the first of two trains. This one would bring me to Zaragoza. A beautiful sunset entertained me during the first hour of the ride but was interrupted just before sundown by a thick fog. The last half hour of the trip brought me to the Zaragoza station where I got off and changed trains.

The last major leg of the journey arrived about an hour after I got to Zaragoza. This train ride would last over two hours and was entirely dark. I took the time to call and update my girlfriend and my dad as well as make a quick journal entry. At approximately 9:30 in the evening, I arrived at Pamplona.

Although the station was only a just over mile from my apartment, there was absolutely no way I was going to walk that distance with all my luggage. Outside the station, I waved down a cab and had my first conversation in all Spanish. It was an empowering experience. With relative ease I found my apartment building. Now, I had to get my keys to my new home.

Since my roommates were still on holiday, they left my key with their friends Miguel and Gorko who run a bar and restaurant called Don Pincho directly below our apartment.

I approached the bar, bags in hand and ski boots around my neck with an exhausted and desperate look. Although I had no idea who Miguel or Gorko were, they spotted me instantly. A tall man stepped out from behind the bar and, in broken Spanish, I explained that my name is Rob and my future roommate told me to get my keys from Miguel or Gorko. This man turned out to be Gorko and kindly presented a key and showed me to my apartment door.

I made it. With a small burst of energy from the excitement of arriving at my new home, I unpacked and took a quick shower then went to bed where I would stay for an amazing ten and a half hours.

I have spent three days in Pamplona now and am loving it. Before I got here, people told me that it is cold and that locals don’t speak English in the city. I can already confirm that both are true but it is only making this experience that much more exciting and memorable. Stay tuned for more stories to come. If you don’t already, follow me on Instagram @robmsul so you don’t miss a single thing.