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.

[1] Relevant
[2] I wasn’t

Poor Man’s Shia & Other Things

I’d read somewhere Toronto had a thriving underground nightlife, and my friends were determined to find it. Luckily some Torontonians they’d met on another trip showed us the places to go to be seen. I went along with it, despite my usual desire not to be seen by anyone but the people I want to be seen by.

Among the recommended places was an upscale lounge frequented by pretentious sorts, a prime example of my aversion to places like it. For one thing, the bartender, a  poor man’s Shia LaBeouf, flirted with tall blondes and brunettes before serving drinks to the commoners. And when he did serve drinks, an attitude came with them.

“I don’t know what that is,” he said with an eye roll.
“But,” I said, “it’s on the menu.”
“No, it’s not. You can ask HIM how to make it,” said Poor Man’s Shia, referring to the other bartender.

It was big-city snobbery without the big city.

A cab driver blamed the recession for the lackluster nightlife. After I’d lamented the empty streets and muted energy, he said people had become more careful with their money, but “It’s not New York.”  I nodded in agreement, though I hadn’t expected it to be New York in the first place.

During the day, it was no better. At around 5 p.m. everyone downtown passed in a blur of suits and briefcases. A suited drone rammed into my friend and kept walking, barely missing a step. It’s a familiar sight in big cities, but the colorless backdrop made it seem even colder.

This isn’t to say there weren’t good things about Toronto.

I was surprised by the narrow interpretation some people took of my Kensington Market entry. Though I can’t control how my writing is interpreted, it’s interesting how people project their biases onto the situation, depending on how well they think they know the people in the story.

I highlighted the interesting parts of Toronto in pictures. But because pictures can be deceiving and it’s not always easy to capture frustration visually without going into abstract or extremely literal territory (cue picture of me scowling), I felt it necessary to use commentary to provide a more complete perspective. I’m not interested in reading the censored version of anything, so why should I write such drivel on my blog?

I aim to provide accurate accounts of my experiences — at least how I see things, which is the key element here — whether or not they were pleasant. I’m not going to say something was life-changing and amazing when it wasn’t, but I’m not going to portray someone negatively without merit either. Something less than adoration is not necessarily criticism of the person but an analysis of someone’s behavior and my reaction to it, which could just as well be a criticism of myself. And because I’m a writer who thinks too much and analyzes too much and deconstructs too much, I always try to learn from these experiences and, unfortunately (insert wink), try to share what I’ve learned with others. With that said, Poor Man’s Shia LaBeouf was a douche and certainly deserves the title.

Toronto reminded me that more often than not, especially when traveling, things don’t always go as well as you’d hoped. As with anything in life, it’s all about how you react to things. I reacted by taking an hour to explore the city alone and by dissecting the trip afterward. It also further reinforced that travel means different things to different people. Some trips you take to enjoy friends and to make them, some to get away from the drudgery of daily life, some to explore the unfamiliar, and so on. All of them, ideally, allow you to learn more about yourself and things outside of it. All of them hopefully don’t hinge on a solitary landmark or mishap, because if something ever goes wrong — and, chances are, something will — then it would all be a waste of time.

Of course I would have loved to come back with several tales of misadventures and glorious encounters (though there was some of that), but not all trips are like that, just as life isn’t always like that. If it were, it would condition us to grow accustomed to extreme highs; monotony would ensue. This way, the moment something amazing does happen, it heightens the senses and makes us all the more aware of its rarity.

More common still is the sameness of life, briefly interrupted by glimmers of things less ordinary. And that, to me, was Toronto.

These pictures are completely random and didn’t fit into previous posts.
Here, a dog actually was sniffing these statues but I sadly didn’t get a good shot of it.

The day S. and I went to the Cambodian restaurant, we also came across a grocery store called “Manila,” named after the Philippine capital.

S. laughs during one of our impromptu photoshoots.

Rush hour zombies.

Flashy Chucks.

This guy hung out at Tim Hortons. When we gave him change, he started calling us his girls.

First glimpse of C.! In this picture, she’s passing through an air-blowing security checkpoint at the CN Tower.

I really liked this walkway, which led us to the tower.

The ROM. I enjoyed ancient Egypt the most. Women were held in high esteem
and could rule the country. Ahead of their time or are we just backward?

At Casa Loma after the Princess’s exit.

Subways and Streetcars

It’s easy to get around Toronto. One morning S. and I wandered over to the outskirts of Toronto to a Cambodian restaurant, where she talked to the owner in Cambodianglish for 10 minutes. “I’m proud of myself!” she said afterward. Here, we waited for the streetcar.

Just around the corner from our hotel, Union Station.

Their subway cars, at least on the line we used, were incredibly clean.

Their subway stations are pretty impressive.
Certain stops feature murals and other works of art.

It’s also a very green city. There are recycling bins everywhere.

King Tut was at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Sadly I missed it. I did see another mummy at the Royal Ontario Museum, and perhaps once you’ve seen one mummy you’ve seen them all. Yes? No?

Three impeccably dressed women sat across from us on the train. There was something graceful about them, even down to the leg-crossing.

Subway musicians are ubiquitous.

Leftovers and flowers.

Rush hour.