Sunday, May 8, 2016

A long overdue post on my university in Spain

As the title dictates, this post probably should have been written months ago, perhaps before I'd finished classes for the semester. Now that my last class ever (after five and a half years of university) is over, the time is probably ripe to write a post about what it was like to study at my university, Carlos III.

I accidentally confused the parentals by declaring that university was finally over - by that I meant lectures, not exams. I won't officially call myself finished in a snazzy jumping photo outside my university on facebook until the last exam is over.

I took three papers in Spanish and three in English.

English papers:
EU Law: an overview of the formation of the EU and its legal norms. On the Friday classes each group had to select a movie that had something to do with the EU and write a report on it, and we got to watch the movie in class.

Mercantile Contracting: this was all about making international contracts. I loved it - it applied a lot of aspects of law I already knew (INCOTERMS hola), plus dispute resolution, jurisdiction issues, shipping of goods, negotiation strategies, to name a few.

We were in groups for the two main assignments for the course - making contracts for the sale/acquisition of businesses. One group was with classmates from the class, and the other group was with classmates AND students from Creighton, a university in Nebraska. So to do the project, we had to have Skype meetings, exchange emails and the like. A very innovative and practical way to teach us about building contracts.

Transnational Labour Relations: a paper about the international nation of business - lots on EU treaties to do with working abroad, renumeration of overseas workers. We had a couple of group assignments and presentations. Conclusion from the course: The EU labour force is a lot more mobile than the NZ one!

What I liked about the English papers:

  • They were generally courses that exchange students, but also several Spanish students picked, so the areas of law they covered had more of an international focus.
  • I could follow the classes and knew what I had to do and when I had to do it.
  • Smaller class sizes and other exchange students.

Spanish papers:
Delitos contra el patrimonio: In other words, crimes against the public patrimony. This was all Spanish penal law, where we went through sections of the Penal Code and got taught about the crimes, the variations of the crimes and similarities with other laws in the code. I found it very hard to follow at first, but got more used to it towards the end. In the practical classes, we had to solve problems by applying the law, in a way similar to what we did at Vic, but with slightly different areas emphasis - this is a civil law system, not a common law system, after all. My class was switched on and always asking questions and for concepts to be clarified - it was almost a more relaxed version of Socratic teaching.

Derecho procesal penal: Criminal Procedure Law. The lecturer was an absolute gem, a little bald man who played us music on YouTube before the start of each class and who was a very enthusiastic teacher and also very relaxed about exams (which doesn't mean the exams are relaxed, just that he gave a helpful speech about how to study and exam techniques, and also said that if anything came up and we couldn't sit the oral exam on the scheduled date, we could email him the day before and reschedule - which I actually ended up doing because I ironically lost my voice before the oral exam). I found the structure (what structure) hard to follow when studying for the exam, however. We spent the last few sessions of our practical class in the judicial salon in the university, having a mock trial, which was really fun. He made powerpoints and used helpful metaphors in explaining the different paths to trial a criminal case could take. He was very much a 'teach them by showing them' kind of teacher, so aside from the mock-trial, we also watched videos from court trials and have to go to a real life trial.

Derechos laborales: Labour/employment Law. I discovered that NZ employment law is really quite nice for the employee - in Spain you're only entitled to one 15 minute break in a six hour period. This was a very heavy statute-based course, and had a weekly assignment every week, which was completed in our groups either during the class or before the class. It was probably one of the most stressful classes, but one my Spanish took a turn for the better it got a little bit easier.

What I liked about the Spanish papers:

  • I think learning civil law was really interesting - no studying cases, what we were doing was studying and learning about the law exactly as it was written down in the code.
  • The constant assessment. This might sound weird, but I thought it was a really good way to learn. Participation marks make up part of your final grade, so you have to contribute to the class.
  • My helpful classmates! Course outlines exist here, but not really like the ones that we get given at Vic. But luckily I had classmates who took me under their wing and showed me what textbooks I needed, gave me advice on exams, answered my questions about how to study and gave me examples on what to do for the group assignments.

For each of those classes, we had two 1.5 hour sessions per week. One was normally a 'Magistral', so a lecture and the other a 'Práctica', so a tutorial. In my Spanish papers, the prácticas generally involved doing a group assignment, or going over it, much like tutorials at Vic when you go over problem questions with a tutor. It was either continuous-assessment based or just to cement and apply the knowledge. Some of the prácticas could be quite stressful, with a lot of time pressure to complete a problem or defend your answer - and I didn't quite get to the confidence level of being able to do that myself in front of everyone in the class. However, I thought that this way of teaching/learning was really good - you always had to apply what you learnt in the lecture class, so because of that, you learnt it better. The group work side of things was interesting - a good way for me to meet classmates and contribute to the group work, but I always felt like I was a liability to the group. One hour of work for them was about 2 hours of work for me, and my Spanish wasn't at the same level theirs was. But I tried my best and learnt from it, and that's what's important, right?

I feel like now I am much more used to the system here, I enjoyed being taught by the lecturers I had and the level of participation in classes (with much smaller class sizes, anything from 10-40 people) was great. It's unfortunate that it took this long to get accustomed to it, because now I'm done.

I won't miss having classes in the afternoons and evenings. There was the option of doing morning classes but timetabling was a bit of a problem. But finishing at 9pm twice a week and 7.30pm twice a week wasn't the most practical thing, especially when friends had morning classes and were finished by mid afternoon. On the upside, it meant I was alert and awake in class, not in the process of waking up like I tended to be in my 8.30am classes last semester.

Above all, one of my favourite things about the university was the facilities. I don't have good photos, but I snapped a few on my phone when the sky was blue. It's a beautiful campus, and a modern university. Now that the trees actually have leaves (honestly, bare branches are so depressing) the campus looks a lot more welcoming and inviting.

This is the main area with the cafeteria part right at the end. There's a big square in front of the cafeteria where people go outside and drink (coffee or tinto de verano or beer) on sunny days:

This is just looking at one of the other buildings - they're all numbered big square blocks separated by grassy patches and trees. Lots of people normally sitting outside as well - but when I took the picture it was later on in the evening so less people were about.

And the suburb where my campus is in is called Getafe. It's definitely not the prettiest suburb - there are none of those cute balconied buildings you see in the postcards of Madrid. There's none of that old European charm either. Some parts of it are actually dangerous (apparently). But I like it. It's thriving and friendly. Sometimes too friendly, like when the children are kicking a ball around outside at 10.30pm, or neighbours are yelling at each other across their windows or the alcoholics are making a racket in the square at 3am... But it's also full of families, older people and the occasional student. I have my favourite fruit and vegetable shop (fresh, cheap and the staff know me there which is really cool), my bakery where a baguette is 25 cents (and I have now banned myself from buying them because it's possible for me to eat a whole baguette in one sitting). There's even a cute park with a lake and excessive water features where I studied with one of my Getafe friends. Then we went to an 'old man bar' afterwards and got cafe con leche and pinchos de tortilla and talked about our lives. I made friends with the elderly downstairs neighbour and drank chocolate milk, ate digestives and watched Spanish television there a few weeks ago. It's cute little things like that I'll miss when I leave in a few weeks time. 

Compared to other exchange students who lived in huge flats with other Erasmus students, in the centre of town (where everything happens), living here did feel a bit isolating, but it's paid off in the sense that I saved on rent and still was able to go into town and do things because transport is fine. Rainy walks to the bus stop at 2.45am are not fun, nor when the bus driver decides to turn a 20 minute drive into a 45 minute one by taking the wrong exit on the motorway, but it's all an adventure, right?
Getafe graffiti
 Now it's time to buckle down for exams - one oral exam on criminal procedure law and two written exams on labour law and EU law. The cool thing is that Madrid boasts some awesome places to study - I have switched my preference from good quality cafes to Google Campus, a co-working space slightly out of the main centre of town. It's an awesome concept - a few big tables with power sockets, free wifi and a café, where people go to immerse themselves in a co-working environment or hijack it for study purposes like my friends and I do.

Funny story from Saturday evening that has nothing to do with previous post:
I was waiting to meet up with some friends for dinner at a (delicious and cheap) Senegalese restaurant in Lavapies, so decided to check out a market nearby. I went into said market and it was well... cool but a bit shabby, not what I was expecting, and lots of the shops where shut. I was about to exit, and had just snuck past a group of adults taking a group photo - dashing quickly past them so I didn't get in the shot. But they noticed and one of them said 'Guapa vuelve' (come back pretty girl/babe).

So I thought 'what the heck' and walked back to the group. I don't really understand why they called me back or anything, but the next thing they were taking a group photo, so I offered to take it for them. But no, they wanted me to be in the photo. Ok strangers, I'll jump in your random photo...  And I probably ruined it with my double chin and squinty eyes but oh well.

I decided to play friendly chatty Anita - after all, talking to adults in Spanish when they've had a little bit (or a lot) to drink can be rather interesting. While I was talking to Alberto from Valencia, two of them right behind him started straight out pashing. PDAs in Spain are quite common, but not to that level.

It was at this point when I took into account the ratio of men-women and realised there was a minute chance they were either really drunk 'happy-chatty' or potentially swingers. I've been known to naively discount potentially weird/dangerous situations so decided to play it safe and not drink the half-drunken bottle of beer they had put in my hands, and make up an excuse to leave. Street-wise Anita replaced friendly chatty Anita. I mean, it was probably a completely innocent situation but I didn't want to take any chances.

While I was talking to them (in Spanish and English), one of the women (they were about late 20's, early 30's) was leaning against the wall, sunglasses over her lips, waving her tongue from side to side. It kind of gave away how drunk they all were so maybe they hadn't kidnapped me to participate in swinging, but I still didn't want to run the risk. In the end I said goodbye, it was nice to meet them and enjoy Madrid, but walked away thinking what the absolute heck.

Anyway, here's a picture of some cool graffiti outside the market.

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