*Written on December 23*
And so, here we are. 122 days later, and I am back in the U.S. I’m currently sitting in the Newark International Airport for the next five hours, which gives me the perfect opportunity to sit down and think about these past four months.
On August 23rd, I took the first of what adds up to 30 flights this semester. I set off for the first of 9 countries that I’d travel to and the first of 12 trips I’d be lucky enough to go on. I left my little town with the dream of seeing the world and I did just that. Today, December 23rd, I have landed in the US with a bittersweet feeling that naturally comes with returning home and leaving a beloved place.
This semester, I have learned so much about my country, Spain, travel, and myself. I have seen the U.S. through the eyes of many different cultures and I have viewed those same nations through my own American perspective. I have become vastly more independent and I have discovered small aspects of myself that I didn’t realize before. Some people return from abroad claiming they feel like a new person and that they realized something life changing about themselves when removed from their comfortable environments for a few months. Personally, I don’t think I’ve gathered any drastic insights about myself, but I certainly think living in a new country for four months has taught me a few lessons and has left a few lasting marks on my personality and character.
What I learned about my country
Beginning with what I have learned about the US, I think the most important lesson comes in the realization that there is a world outside of the United States that functions differently from the U.S., but just fine. After living outside of the U.S. for four months, I have realized that I can survive just fine without 24/7 air conditioning, a drying machine, American brands, and all of the other things I am accustomed to in the U.S. In fact, I now see how wasteful Americans – including myself – can be. Will I start turning off the air conditioning when I leave the house and start recycling every piece of plastic, paper, and glass? Probably not. But I do think living outside of the U.S. has given me a new appreciation for the environment and I hope to develop increasingly more environmentally conscious habits as I continue living in the U.S. and potentially even abroad in the future.
Something else I have learned is that although the U.S. can seem uninteresting compared to other countries, that’s just because it’s where I live. Life in Barcelona is exciting, but the day-to-day activities are honestly not any different from what they would be if I lived in any major U.S. city. Where we live never seems as interesting as other places because it’s what we are accustomed to. Due to my extremely obvious American accent, I was asked many times where I am from and just about every time I received responses such as “Wow, that’s so cool! I have always wanted to go to the U.S.” After traveling for 4 months and being exposed to so many different cultures, I have really come to appreciate the U.S. and everything that seemed so “boring” a few months ago.
What I learned about Spain
Before moving to Barcelona, I honestly didn’t realize that Spain’s different regions were as different as the North, South, East, and West regions of the U.S. In fact, they are arguably even more different because different languages are spoken in the different regions. I was expecting to hear Castilian Spanish – what we think of as Spanish – everywhere I went, but Catalan is by far the dominant language in Catalonia’s capital city of Barcelona. Additionally, Catalonia isn’t nearly as conservative and traditional as the other parts of Spain, which I really didn’t know until living in Spain with a Catalan roommate. It was such an amazing life experience to live in another country and really become a part of the city by living in an apartment with a Catalan roommate, learning through Spain’s public university system, and experiencing the night life and cuisine while speaking another language.
What I learned about travel
I have always loved airports and that feeling of endless possibility that comes with being in a building in which there’s the opportunity to reach every corner of the world. However, I have never travelled as much as I have in the past 4 months. After hopping across Europe just about every weekend, I have found a greater appreciation for travel and for the purpose of it. I am thrilled that I was able to go on 12 trips to 9 different countries in the past 4 months. I saw so many cities and made memories that I am sure to never forget. However, what I really noticed is that the cities are different in their historical buildings and significances, but the itineraries we follow when exploring these new places are largely the same. We take pictures with iconic sights, observe exquisite architecture, and enjoy delicious local cuisine. Some cities I’ll go back to, others I don’t know that I’ll ever see again. But honestly, in most cases, it’s not the city that matters. What really matters when I travel is whom I am with. I was lucky enough to be with some of my absolute best friends as we travelled all throughout Europe. In 10, 20, and 30 years, it’s going to be so great to be able to look back on this time of my life and be able to share it with friends that I know I’ll still have for decades to come.
Travel is exciting, but if you make it about checking destinations off a list, the magic can be lost. There were many cities I didn’t get enough time in, but at least I have the memories with my friends to keep those cities clear in my memory forever. What’s even better is if you get the chance to meet locals and actually experience the city in an authentic way. Last weekend, I returned to Knut’s home in Norway, and once again it was one of the best trips. I attended a 3.5 hour rendition of Singing in the Rain in Norwegian with his family, and although I understood very few words, I felt like I was really getting to see a genuine part of Norwegian culture that I never would have had I gone to Oslo without a Norwegian. Although seeing Oslo was not new to me, I enjoyed that trip more than some of the trips to new cities because I got such an authentic cultural experience.
Finally, I learned that travel isn’t always pretty. I have had trains cancelled, too many flights delayed to count, and many other travel complications. What it’s taught me is that there are situations that are completely out of my control and that panicking is the least helpful way to cope. Does this mean I don’t panic? Not exactly. But I am more aware of the fact that things won’t always go as planned and that it all works out in the end. I have also learned to really appreciate being home in the comfort of my own bed much more.
What I learned about myself
As I said previously, I haven’t experienced any great revelations about myself in the past few months, but I have been able to see my own strengths and weaknesses a bit more clearly. I have learned that I am a lot more independent than I thought I was, and I’m also largely low maintenance when it comes to travel. However, the Spanish culture has really exposed my perfectionist attitude. In Spain, life moves at half the pace I am used to and I am told “traquilo” (calm down) about 100 times per day (along with most of the other American students). The lack of urgency for most things really does drive me crazy. However, I notice that that’s not exactly a good thing. Throughout my time in Spain, I have come to appreciate the Spanish way of relaxing and spending time with people over books/working. Although I don’t think I could adopt such a lax lifestyle, I really value it.
Finally, taking five courses in Spanish and spending an entire semester learning in a different language, I have really seen myself stretch my comprehension skills much further than I ever thought that I could. I remember the first day of my 20th century Spanish literature class when I felt like I did not understand a word. Four months later, I was reading a 300+ page books in Spanish and writing four page essays in class. I eventually realized that I’d never succeed if I dwelled on every complicated conjugation and every individual word, so I tried to just sit back and understand what I could. Learning in Spanish and successfully completing the semester was one of the most valuable parts of my experience because I was able to see my confidence and my execution of the Spanish language grow in such a short amount of time. Although my speaking still isn’t great, my understanding, reading, and writing have definitely advanced significantly. Leaving Barcelona, I really feel as if I can now communicate with an entirely additional population of people thanks to just about mastering a second language.
Ultimately, this past semester has been everything I expected and more. I was able to live and learn in a new culture, travel the world, and make so many incredible friends. To anyone contemplating studying abroad, my advice is to do it. This is truly the only time in your life that you’ll have the chance to travel the world without the pressure of real-life responsibilities weighing you down. Thank you to every person who made this experience so wonderful, especially my parents who made it possible. There is nothing else you could’ve given me that compares to the thrilling adventure of these past four months. Here’s to the end of one of the best chapters of my life. Although this one was great, I’m sure there are so many more great ones to come. As Carla told us the night before we left, home isn’t just where you’re from, but also every place you’ve loved and been loved by. I know I loved Barcelona and I sure feel like it loved me.
Hasta la vista,