A Bridge Over Uncertain Waters: What Salamanca Taught Me

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by Brandon Schettler | Emory Salamanca Program, Spring 2020

When I went on my study abroad program to Salamanca last spring, my first time walking through the city by myself was like finding my way through a maze. I’m not the most adept at directions, to say the least, and I was late on my first day of school because of that. But after a week, a few landmarks became my internal map: the Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral, and the Puente Romano.

The truth is, I could write pages and pages about each one of these sites. They are near and dear to me because in many ways, they represent Salamanca. But the Puente Romano stands alone as what Salamanca came to represent for me. In English, this means “the Roman bridge.” Walking over a structure built by the Romans for the first time felt like crossing into a fairytale. My eyes widened at the thought that a bridge several thousand years old was still structurally sound enough to carry the hordes of locals and tourists alike.

A walk through the Plaza Mayor during the Chinese New Year celebration.

And that’s similar to much of Salamanca. I felt as though I was walking through a museum while strolling through the city. I could walk down one narrow street and see an ornate fachada (a very fancy stone engraving, like a tapestry) of Isabella and Ferdinand II—you know, the historical rulers you read about in school.     

But Salamanca is so much more than just history. During my program, I also got to experience much of that rich Spanish culture mixed with Salamanca’s small-town charm. There were many nights when I would get tapas (a pre-dinner snack) with friends, which always helped hold me over until dinner at 10 pm. We would go to bars and discotecas and feel the floors shake with the weight of the bass lines and the dancing crowds. 

Taken on a field trip to the New Cathedral (La Catedral Nueva)

More often than going to bars, I would go with my group of friends on late afternoon walks when we wanted to see more of the city. One of my favorite memories is of getting ice cream and strolling with them through the crowded streets, our pace slow enough to feel a perfect breeze and the gentle glow of the setting sun. We talked about anything and everything, practiced our Spanish, and had not a single worry. 

The Puente Romano was there for all these moments, either as a reference when walking back in the wee hours of morning, or as the connector between the historical corners of Salamanca and the unfamiliar world beyond. 

I had to leave Salamanca early because of the COVID-19 outbreak, which was certainly hard to grapple with. Nonetheless, the experiences I had in this wonderful Spanish town taught me important things going forward, despite and because of the pandemic. Just as I no longer look at the bridge as only a historical artifact, I try to find the duality in all situations. There’s more to life than only school or only work. It’s much more valuable to treasure both sides of situations in a world where anything can happen unexpectedly. 

If you look close enough, you may find an opportunity for ice cream, good friends, and conversation. 

At the very least, what’s the harm in relaxing?