“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you feel comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” -Clifton Fadiman
My second week in Spain, I decided to travel from Granada to Madrid to spend a few days with my cousin Kristina. (For those of you who have been reading for a while, you might remember Kristina as the friend who can run way faster than me and brought me to a ball in Washington D.C. one time.) Kristina has been kicking ass studying in Madrid since September, so she offered to lead me around the country’s capital for a weekend and give me a few hugs. (Two weeks into a semester in a new country with a new language and new people, I was really looking forward to the hugs.)
This was my first big travel adventure of the semester, and Kristina helped me plan the whole thing out. I had to wake up at 6:30 to be at the bus stop by my house at 7, where I’d take a city bus to the big Estación de Autobuses at the other end of town. Then I’d get on another bus to Madrid, and when I got to the city five hours later, I’d hop on the metro and get off at the Manuel Becerra stop to meet up with Kristina and head to her apartment. The plan seemed straightforward enough.
The night before I left, I had a dream that the bus to Madrid was leaving without me. The bus had a platform, like a train, and a woman with a short, no-nonsense haircut told me that my ticket wasn’t valid. The glass sliding doors of the bus-train began to close and it started to chug away. No! I was determined to get on that bus-train. Somehow I knew that if I didn’t make it on this one there would never be another way to get to Madrid, and then all of my hopes and dreams would be destroyed, and then I’d die. Not getting on the train was not an option.
In the dream, I took a few steps back, adjusted my backpack, and jumped the platform onto the moving bus-train as the doors were still closing. The woman with the no-nonsense haircut yelled something, and there was a big crash. In real life, I dove out of my bed and onto the cold tile floor. I woke up when I hit the ground, completely disoriented. Holy shit. Maybe I was more anxious about this trip than I realized.
The morning of my viaje, everything almost went smoothly. I forgot to pay when I boarded the city bus—probably the result of months of free bus rides with my UNH ID—and when the driver called me to the front to pay my 1.20€, I didn’t have any coins in my wallet. Turns out the bus only accepts coins. The driver told me to get off at the next stop, make change somewhere, and then get back on the next bus. At least I think that’s what he said. My Spanish was still pretty weak at the time.
So I hopped off the bus and found myself alone on a deserted street in the middle of a Spanish city. In late January, 7am Spanish time looks a lot like 4am American time. The sky was still dark. Absolutely nothing was open. I didn’t even know which street I was on. The bus left, and everything went eerily quiet. Holy crap holy crap holy crap, I thought, choosing a random direction to walk in. Alright, Hann, stay calm. Just find somewhere to make change. No big deal.
I found a 24-hour Pharmacy five or ten minutes later, and I knew it was open because its medical-cross sign blinked green above the door. Hallelujah! But even the 24-hour Pharmacy looked like it wasn’t into the 7am-wake-up-call, and there was a locked gate in front of the door. I rang the doorbell and shook the gate until the man in the white lab coat—I could see him in there, and I knew he could see me too, goddammit—took pity on me and came to ask what I wanted. I begged in sub-par Spanish for change. Cambio, por favor! He agreed to break my 20€ if I bought a pack of chicles. I have never been so happy to buy a pack of shitty strawberry gum.
I finally made it onto the city bus with change jangling in my pocket, and I was still early for my big bus ride to Madrid. Kristina and I found each other on the Spanish metro no problem. She gave me lots of hugs and fed me well and took me clubbing in the city to show me that I could. It was awesome. I had survived my first big adventure!
Looking back, it’s hard to believe I was so nervous about that bus ride. I love using the Spanish bus system now. I know exactly how to order my ticket online (with PayPal, always with PayPal), I wake up excited for my trips, I chat with the older Spanish ladies in the seat next to me who want to visit New York someday. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that first trip to Madrid.
For the last couple weeks, it feels like I’ve been in a bit of a rut. I’m homesick, guys. I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming. I’ve been here for three and a half months. I’ve figured out the bus system and I’ve flown internationally by myself, twice. I can actually understand Spanish now (most of the time, at least). I thought I’d be at maximum comfort level by now—hitting my stride, watching the days fly by, maybe having a brief yet passionate love affair with a handsome local. I figured the last month of my study abroad experience would be exactly how study-abroad-veterans describe the whole semester: Amazing. Incredible. I would probably give my left arm to go back there.
Don’t get me wrong—so much of this semester has been amazing and incredible and worth giving a left arm for. But lately I’ve found myself wishing time away. I want to get back to my own bed and my own restaurants and my own language. I want to feel comfortable again. I feel homesick and then I feel guilty. How could I think those things when I’m lucky enough to be living in Spain and traveling every weekend? How could I want to go home when I know an adventure like this is probably never going to happen again?
I’m writing this because I have a lot of friends—both old and new—living study-abroad adventures right now. We’re spread out on different continents and eating different foods and speaking different languages, but from the conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks, it seems like a surprising number of us are feeling the same way. This is the final stretch. We’ve been uncomfortable for a long ass time. We’re close to going home, but not close enough to feel nostalgic quite yet. We might just be in a rut.
And friends, if any of you are reading this, it’s okay. It is okay. We can cry and laugh and get angry and anxious and homesick. We can stumble over our words even though we’ve been immersed in this culture for three and a half months, goddammit, and we’d hoped we’d be knock-your-socks-off-fluent by now. We can do this.
I often think of how I felt on that deserted street in late January. (I now know that the street was Camino de Ronda, and it is one of the largest and most centrally located calles in Granada.) It was terrifying, and I was pretty close to frantic, but underneath that fear there was something else too. Excitement. Courage. Adventure. Knowing that I was in charge of what came next. Feeling blind and unsure, but also confident that I could figure it out. I would figure it out. That’s the only option.
My family came to visit me in Granada this week. A piece of home came to me just when I was missing it most. (That same piece of home can’t really speak Spanish, tried to drive a rental car in world’s most un-driveable Spanish neighborhood, and locked a piece of luggage in that same rental car at the airport before their flight home, but those are all stories for another time.) Friends, I know most of you still have a few more weeks to go before your parents hug you too hard at the airport, but I think we can consider this our reset button. Today. Right now. These words, if they help.
There’s fear and anxiety and discomfort here, but there’s so much more, too. There’s the feeling that you get staring out at the sunset through your bus window, like you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. You can feel it growing giddy in your chest. This is it. I am here. This is the adventure. If you stretched out your hands, your fingertips could touch around the earth.
Hiking in Monachil, Granada. My mom grimaced all the way across that rickety bridge. (She didn’t want to cross it at all, but we called her a chicken. Works every time.)
We did some (legal) family drinking.
“Hey guys, this is the two-way street we tried to drive the rental car through!”
Mom, Dad, Sar, and Kissy – thanks for the week of adventures! Love you guys more than Milka.