The months leading up to graduating from college are kind of terrifying.
I, ever the wise one, decided to do it in a different country.
In January 2007, I threw my stuff into a suitcase (in 30 minutes, I kid you not), said goodbye to my weeping parents and spent my last semester of college abroad.
I skipped the rituals that typically go along with the end of something: the final look at my surroundings right before it all gets quiet, and I leave with my husband and children only to return upon remembering to take down the family portrait above the mantle and, with a bite of my lip, turn on my heels and close the door.
I missed a lot of things that spring, including my graduation. But I didn’t care. For the first time, I was going to be away from home for a long time (I lived at home in college), and it didn’t involve toiling away in rural Virginia.
There’s an abundance of romanticism that goes along with living abroad. Some hope it will involve a tall, dark, dashing Spaniard (or the –ish –ench –an equivalent of whatever appropriate country) ready to whisk them away from their mundane existence. Some think it will involve lots of booze, lots of dancing the night away, lots of beaching and the incredible mastery of a language they formerly only knew in relation to where the bathroom was or how much something cost.
There can be that, yes, but – and this is the part revisionists neglect to disclose – there’s quite a bit of loneliness, too.
There’s the alienation of being somewhere that doesn’t eat, speak, celebrate or dream in the only way you know how. There’s the lack of people who get you in a way that doesn’t need explanation or polish or fakery. There’s the rude awakening of getting to know a version of yourself you never knew existed and, now that you do, don’t like.
And, if you’re me, there’s the culture shock of being around people who are used to money, spending it, and are in pursuit of travel not so they could learn the culture of the country they’re in, but to be able to say they’ve been there.
I, for the most part, didn’t fit in.
There weren’t too many people like me in that group. When I say that, I mean people who were born and spent much of their childhood in a third world country, moved to the Bronx and at some point lived in a studio with the family, and got into college probably because of the special your-siblings-go-here-so-I-guess-you-can-too loophole.
To put it simply, it was quite a leap. The disparity dawned on me pretty quickly within my first days there.
On one of our guided tours, a few of us headed over to an ATM before eating at a restaurant somewhere. I checked my balance: $1,000.
That should last me a while, I thought, totally relieved.
“Don’t you hate that feeling…” said a guy from our group, who apparently had been hovering over me, “… when your balance is low?”
I think I uttered a sheepish response of agreement and withheld my bewilderment.
The next few months were going to be interesting.
In spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the experience really changed my life. I ended up making friends with people within the program who did get me, friends outside the program from around the world, and sometimes even scrounged up enough money to venture elsewhere. I eventually learned that that guy and the others were actually good people who just happened to exist in an entirely different world from mine.
And ultimately, wasn’t that the kind of out-of-comfort-zone experience I was looking for?
Afterward, I felt like I could do anything. It’s partly why moving to New York was never as daunting as it could have been. It’s also why I recommend that kind of discomfort-oriented introspection for anyone in search of something more.
Below, I’ve posted snippets of entries I made in my paper journal during that semester.
Inspired by this book (the source of the image above), I even drew a little. I had no sense of scale or proportion, shape, shading or realism, and I never did learn how to draw a straight line.
February 11 | Barcelona
Waiters here are so rude sometimes. I’m sitting in a cafe on Las Ramblas — the hub of touristy things. The menu is only in Catalan (no Spanish), so I had no idea what’s on the menu. I went only for the pictures, and they didn’t even have that.
The tables nearby gawked at me, and I could feel them silently thinking they were glad they weren’t me.
March 13 | Villa Olimpica
I realized I was silently critical; I always find fault in others, possibly to deflect criticism from myself. So, as I sit on the beach marinating in the sun, soaking up this beautiful environment, I’m debating whether to be silently critical on paper. Or maybe I should just acknowledge my flaws and accept people for what they are. But that’s not what journals are for, are they?
March 14 | Arc de Triomf
My trip is already halfway over, and I can’t believe it. I still have so much to see of Barcelona; I want to see more of Spain. If only I had money, I would stay here the whole summer. Perhaps I’ll take a creative sabbatical and live in a foreign country for a few months. Who says I can’t, right?
March 26 | Sants (my neighborhood)
The hair salon is off Sants on a tiny street. It’s an interesting culture. My senora brought us just before it opened, and we were the first ones here. Soon enough, a legion of women came in. Old ladies kiss the hairdressers upon entering. They all seem to know each other.
April 1 | La Clandestina
Life’s nothing if you can’t share it with anyone who matters. That’s something I’ve learned while I’m here.
April 5 | Plaza de Espana, Seville
What I love about traveling is the people I meet along the way. In one night, we met someone who has hitchhiked through Spain, someone who won “Jeopardy” and someone who encountered Iraqi expatriates in Sweden and Scotland.
Boys have an easier time traveling. They can go anywhere and do anything with minimal fear of being abducted or raped. I’m sure that stuff happens to guys, but they’re not quite as vulnerable as girls. As I was sitting last night listening to everyone’s stories, I wished I had equally crazy ones of my own. Unfortunately, theirs involved traveling on foot at night in the middle of nowhere, asking strangers for rides and sleeping in random houses.
If I were to do that, well, let’s just say this would be an
very short entry incomplete journal. This part would be quoted and deemed ironic: “Life imitates art!” But really, everyone thinks about it, so it’s not so ironic. It’s just that not everyone writes it down.
April 8 | On a bus from Seville to Barcelona
My trip ends with less than 10 euros in cash. I spent some last night at booths on the boardwalk and got two scarves, two necklaces, earrings, two bracelets for less than 30 euros. Not bad. They should be presents for friends, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to give them up. I’m so glad I did Semana Santa my way. Just aimless routes, random encounters and many laughs. Best of all, void of guided tours and forced conversation.
April 11 | Barcelona
Last night, [my senora’s husband] said I was getting fat. His exact sentence I can’t remember, but it contained the phrases (in Spanish):
“She’s getting fat.”
“Turning into a square.”
“She should go on a diet.”
Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to sit across from him at dinner. His words turned into a Peanuts-like adult drawl. After some forced conversation and sitting through his rants about the value of the euro and the dollar, I excused myself from the table.
My roommate had to deal with him.
April 23 | Amsterdam
Amsterdam is such a neat place to live in. Bikes populate the city more than people. There’s a vibrant nightlife and a wealth of culture.
April 25 | Barcelona
The program ends in about two weeks. This experience has allowed me to grow up, think about myself and what I have to change about it. I’m a more experienced traveler now. I’ve grown increasingly independent from my parents, whom I still rely on financially (but I hope that will change soon). And I’ve learned to put it all in perspective. Everyone changes, but at a much faster rate when overseas and around 20 potential friends. High school never ends. And a little bit of positivity goes a long way.
I get home at the end of May and will have almost a month to get acclimated to the US, unpack, repack, move to Fredericksburg and get back into journalism.
I’ve missed the writing, the pace, the newsroom.
May 23 | Valencia
Locals tell me I speak Spanish well — the cab driver in Barcelona, the waiter in Valencia. Just imagine how much better I’d be in a year.