Writing & Drawing from Life Abroad

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[1].

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.

Don’t laugh.

***

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.

“Solo jamon!”
“Solo jamon!”

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[2]. 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.

FOOTNOTES
[1] Relevant
[2] I wasn’t

Conversations with Strangers

Albert was in his 50s, or given Asians’ tendency to look perpetually young, maybe even older.

He sat next to me on the plane, and as I’d gotten very little sleep before my flight (I’d spent the morning running errands and 30 minutes of it  packing), I was in no mood for small talk. I pulled out a book, turned on my ipod and hoped the plane would lull me to sleep.

But Albert was persistent. I can’t remember how the conversation started or what in my “I’m busy” demeanor gave him the indication that I welcomed conversation, but almost instantly the questions began. And they didn’t stop for much of our 12-hour flight.

He was curious about the dozens of college students on the same flight to Spain and perhaps he could sense my apprehension. At 22, I’d traveled little, as my parents could barely afford to send my siblings and me to college, let alone plan overseas excursions outside of going to the homeland to attend funerals (and for all those trips my mom went solo). I’d held jobs in high school and college, having to rely on those paltry earnings to fund my own excursions (which in college translated to beer, food, gas and more beer).

Though it was my first time alone on a plane, I’d always been independent. My parents didn’t like that. In fact, they discouraged anything I wanted to do that didn’t involve staying home until I was whisked away by a suitor, preferably Filipino, in some respectable profession. They especially couldn’t fathom how their youngest daughter could survive four months in a huge city like Barcelona.

“You have good parents,” Albert told me, “for letting you do this.”

And just like that, he put things in perspective.

When we landed we said our goodbyes, and I watched him disappear into the crowd.

* * *

Though journalism is in a downward spiral, I haven’t regretted pursuing it. Through it, I’ve grown accustomed to talking to strangers and developing an insight into all sorts of people. Albert was different because I didn’t need a story from him, and he actually taught me a thing or two about traveling (Lesson 1: Conversations with strangers en route might actually be quite meaningful).

I’ve applied that to everyday life. I can’t say I make friends with everyone I meet or that I haphazardly go to bars to talk to strangers, but when the situation presents itself I consider it an opportunity to potentially learn from someone. That’s not to say I don’t take necessary precautions or stay aware of my surroundings.

Naturally, it’s drawn some criticism from friends who don’t share the same view. Often they tell me horror stories of kidnappings and murders, with the implication I will meet the same fate unless I bring a weapon or bodyguard. But journalists are always on their own, I tell them. Though they write for news organizations and may be accompanied by a crew, journalists do much of the reporting alone before the cameras roll. It’s probably in their best interests not to venture to war-torn countries, but how else will these stories get told?

I haven’t been anywhere close to that kind of danger, but I’ve gone to strangers’ houses, been verbally threatened, taken rides with sources and have driven through desolate country roads to even more desolate spots past midnight with only a map in hand, vague directions and no phone service.

I’ve survived unscathed, I tell them.

“But you’re in New York,” they say, as if all the crazy people in the world congregated in this city and nowhere else (though city crime rankings seem to think it’s pretty safe here). They think of the crack epidemic that plagued New York in years past, not the current gentrified  Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn that have displaced the very people who are actually from New York.

I find it funny that my encounters are met with such cynicism amid our culture of oversharing on Facebook and the heyday of Craigslist, with people willing to live with total strangers. I stand by my belief that crazy things happen everywhere, whether you’re in New York or in a small unheard of town.

Sure, I can choose to hide in my illusion of safety and keep a closed off, cynical view of the world, never allowing myself to experience anything I can’t directly control. Or I can be smart about things and still revel in the unknown.

I choose to be the latter.

Into the Shadows

Barcelona, Spain

“The physical aspect of travel is, for me, the least interesting; what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know, and may never know… a trip has been really successful if I come back sounding strange even to myself; if, in some sense, I never come back at all, but remain up at night unsettled by what I’ve seen.”

Pico Iyer

(Note: The guy in the picture is not some random street performer. It’s my study abroad friend Felix the Gato! He let me try swinging those things, but I can’t say I was very spectacular. Go, Felix the Gato, go!)