La Despedida // The Farewell

At 5am, the tears began flowing.

I tried to hide my emotion in the dark backseat of the taxi as I peered out the window for one final goodbye to the city I loved so much. It felt wrong leaving like this, like running away in the dark of night– unsatisfying in my inability to have a proper goodbye. I just wanted one more Sevillan sunrise, one more chance to see the light glisten off the cathedral or feel the bustle of the streets as they come to life each morning. Instead, my flight was soaring into the sky before the sun even rose.

And just like that, my study abroad experience comes to a close. The most exciting months of my life screeched to a halt in a flurry of final exams, packing, sightseeing and saying goodbye. Above anything else, a sense of melancholy permeated my last week as I ground my heels into the cobblestones to avoid the inevitable that was approaching far too quickly.

How could it be over already? Didn’t I just arrive, bright-eyed and unsuspecting, gazing at the Plaza de España with amazement for the first time? Or have I been here forever, knowingly navigating that confusing web of streets in the place that now feels like home? The two conflicting sentiments interweave somehow– an excited wonder at each new day, tinted with a familiarity that wraps over it all like a warm blanket.

The internal conflict continued with every thought of leaving. I would be heartless to say I wasn’t looking forward to coming home; of course, I was excited to see my friends and family again, and I couldn’t imagine not being home for Christmas. Warm thoughts of family traditions and holiday celebrations were the silver linings that made me excited to return.

But a large part of me also dreaded leaving. I feel unsatisfied by my glimpse of Sevilla; 3 months was but a blink, enough to whet my appetite but leaving me hungry for more. Enough to fall in love and leave with an ache in my chest and a lump in my throat for the city, the people and the life that had become home the past few months.

Some people will talk about how difficult study abroad is. This is true; there are moments of discomfort, of such exhaustion (physical and mental) and overstimulation that you’re left wanting nothing more than an American meal and your own bed and a hug from your mom. But such is life, and anything more perfect wouldn’t be realistic.

Like anything in life, this experience is entirely what you make it. You can spend your time missing home and the comforts you’ve always known, or you can shed the weight of your own expectations and open yourself up to amazing possibilities you’ve never imagined. You can get happily lost in a foreign culture and maybe even end up finding yourself.

At least that’s how it happened for me.

A friend put it best when he said being in Sevilla is like a dream. Every day, a new adventure– even if that’s just taking a different route to class and discovering a new point of view or having a conversation in Spanish with a stranger. Sevilla was a place of learning and growth; I came in search of a part of me I felt I had lost– the me that was before college and stress and illness overcame me. I leave now with a heart that is somehow both lighter and heavier– lighter because there, amidst cobblestone calles and under the brilliant Sevillan sun, I found her, the me I had lost. Heavier still because I had to leave, and from this dream, I must awaken.

One semester was not enough for me– three months, just a tease. I have tasted the sweet Andalusian life, and a part of me will forever remain there.

And one day, I know, I will go back to retrieve it.

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The Things We Leave Behind

Among my many character flaws quirks, I am impossibly forgetful. But you probably already knew that. Come to think of it, I also have pretty bad luck when it comes to leaving things on public transportation. (RIP to my favorite aviator sunglasses that fell down the subway track this summer, and don’t even remind me of the Peruvian chocolate taxi incident of 2016…)

So it should come as no surprise that the inevitable happened: I lost something that can’t be replaced. Monetarily speaking, it wasn’t too harsh of a blow, but this item held infinitely more value to me than its price tag.

As I write this, my travel journal is probably riding through Eastern Europe somewhere on a Hungarian charter bus. In the disorder of collecting my things upon arrival in Budapest a few weeks ago, I seemed to have left that tiny treasure in the back pocket of my bus seat.

From the outside, my journal doesn’t look like much. It’s white with gold flowers, clearly cheap because I bought it at Wal-Mart the day before I left for Spain in a last-minute decision to dedicate a book solely to this chapter of my life. Its modest exterior does not reveal the treasured thoughts it contains. To anyone who finds this journal, it’s nothing more than the silly (hopefully entertaining) ramblings of a study abroad student. But to me, it is some of my best days yet, some of the most memorable experiences of my life: the details of all the exciting new things I’ve experienced and reflections of all my growth and learning. It is a part of me, not to be dramatic or anything.


But my journal isn’t the only thing I am leaving behind in Europe. (And I’m not talking about my missing earring either, or all of the old shoes I will most likely not be able to fit in my suitcase, ugh).

The truth is, I am leaving behind a lot. There are pieces of me now in so many different locations, parts of myself that I’ve left in the places that have changed me. There are things that I’ve shed in order to make space for the new– misconceptions and false expectations that dissolved as my worldview grew; traits and tendencies that have shifted as my lifestyle adapted to a new culture; truths I thought I knew but discovered were never really true at all.

That’s how it goes when we travel. Sometimes we leave behind the old junk in order to make room for all the new things we collect along the way. We shed the weight of the past as we journey, because in life– like in airplanes–there’s no room for extra baggage.

The best part, though, is that the things we lose are never really lost at all. The places that have inspired me will always be there, and my memories will live on even as the world around them changes with the times. And I can only hope the places that have changed me have felt my small impact, too, even for a brief moment.

Maybe someone out there found my journal and decided it was worth a read. Maybe they got a kick out of it; maybe they laughed or cried right along with it as they read, like I did at times as I wrote. Maybe they needed to find it and maybe I needed to lose it.

Or maybe I really just need to learn to not be so forgetful…

Morocco: A Whole New World

I spent my Halloween getting spooked in a different way this year. In Fez’s oldest market, the Medina, a decapitated camel’s head hung precariously close to my own as a strange form of welcome to Morocco.

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Rainy Medina Streets (no decapitated camels in frame– you’re welcome)

I averted my eyes, but to no avail, encountering grotesque sights at every turn. The smell was overpowering, heightened by the dampness of the day, muddy rainwater seeping into my shoes as we made our way through the Medina’s endless passageways. The narrow “streets” were lined with everything imaginable: handcrafted goods, argan oil and spices; electronics and toys; toiletries and medications. Raw meat and animal parts sat drying in the air on one side, while sweet pastries and fresh dates displayed temptation on the other. The overstimulation sent my brain into a frenzy as I tried to process this strange assortment of sights (and did I mention smells?) I was experiencing all at once.

With my head down to avoid sight of the butchers’ torture chambers, we weaved through this market of horrors. Inside the shops, it was a completely different story. We were met by jovial Moroccans in every store, welcoming and eager to show off their goods. In the carpet store, we were treated to a spectacule by a natural-born salesman that made his pitch so fun we almost forgot we were being sold to. Here’s a little-known fact: Moroccans have salesman skills running through their veins. I am not usually so easily persuaded, but there I was spending nearly $50 on argan oil and contemplating a $200 rug for my future home, if that tells you anything.

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Moroccan carpet store and quite possibly the best salesman I have ever met.

 

Though I painted the Medina in a harsh (but entirely accurate) light, it wasn’t all a bad experience. As soon as we stepped into the little shops where people display the goods to which they devote their whole lives, my mind was changed. Each carpet that someone labored over for months to get the intricate design just right is a work of art; each hand-painted bowl or piece of silver jewelry became instantly prettier once we knew the work that went into it, and the passion with which they sell their pieces makes up for their pushiness.

Who would have thought that shopping could ever be a cultural experience? But in the Medina, this was a way to understand the ancient traditions, to connect over goods that carried months or years of labor, heart and soul. And though we certainly looked out of place, a giant group of white American tourists with our backpacks and cameras in the middle of this place, somehow in the shops, the differences between us felt smaller, the distance just a little less great.

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Ceramist working on tiles in the ceramic factory

In the leather store, one of the shop owners asked me, “Why is it you wanted to come to my country?” There was pride but also distinct curiosity in his question.

“Well, I am studying in Spain and this is one of the trips offered…” I started. But as I responded, I knew this wasn’t the real answer. “I wanted to experience another culture that was different from my own. And I’ve heard a lot about Morocco, but I wanted to see it for myself,” I finally answered.

“Well, what you hear is not all true,” he told me sadly, downcast eyes with painful shame for the way Muslims are often portrayed. “Here we welcome you. We are happy you are here. We wish you peace… We want peace.”

His statement was raw, and it broke my heart. For a moment he wasn’t a shopkeeper trying to sell me a leather jacket; we were just two people from worlds apart forging a connection. A Christian and a Muslim, each sharing blessings in our own ways– he taught me “Salam-Aleikum,” a greeting of peace, and smiled as I butchered the pronunciation.

Ultimately, this is why I travel (or reason #4520, honestly). For me, it’s not just about seeing new cities and checking places off my bucket list; it’s about diving into a culture– even one so foreign from my own. I can’t pretend my afternoon in the Medina was, by any means, sufficient to say I now understand the Moroccan culture. But I can say I learned more from walking through those narrow alleyways and talking with shop owners than my touristy Instagram photos ever let on. And in doing so, it felt a little like I was bridging that seemingly unbridgeable gap between us.

We shared smiles and stories and mint tea, and it felt as if we could be long-lost friends. Not Moroccans and Americans or Muslims and Christians–just people. On foreign soil but under the same sun, finding that our similarities spoke louder than our differences.

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Our Moroccan guide leading us through a much more colorful quarter of the Medina after the rain let up.

 

Cuando llueve, jarrea // When it Rains it Pours

Friday.

My weekend started off on the wrong foot. I was prematurely awoken by the furious screeching of an ambulance stopping just down the street from my apartment. Dazed and annoyed, I drifted into a half-sleep only to be jolted awake once again by the alarm I forgot I had set. Shortly after, construction workers began their day much earlier than I intended to begin mine, and the noise ricocheting down the narrow street into my window forced me to resign and rise. I noticed with dismay that it was raining, my terraza pooling with water and the dampness already chilling my bones.

Un día de esos.  

It was one one of those days where you spend the whole day waiting for the clouds to clear. But the rain never ceased and the sky barely shed light over sleepy Sevilla today.

If there has ever been a person that hates the rain more than me, I’ve never met them. My closest friends and family know that my attitude is directly related to the weather, and I’ll be the first to admit I am not the most pleasant person to be around when it’s cold and/or rainy. Actually, I chose Sevilla because of the rumored sunshine and warm climate. Not to be mistaken, it is warm here. But we’ve been having some unseasonably chilly days and more rain than usual. Coupled with a week of midterms and a persistent cold that I just can’t quite shake, it’s safe to say I have been having a rough week.

I was lamenting my luck as I trekked through the sodden streets, the rain pelting me despite my umbrella and newly-purchased coat (yes, I had to buy a parka because I did not pack one, naively expecting sunshine and warmth for the whole semester). My mood grew dark like the clouds and I was seriously tempted to cancel the plans I had made with another student for a language exchange.

But I persevered, arriving late to the cafe we chose, grumpy and dripping with rainwater. But the clouds of my humor lifted as I sipped my coffee and swapped stories with two exchange students from Italy. We got to know each other through a jumbled conversation of Spanish, Italian and English that was enough to give me a headache, but our giggling transcended language barriers. I quickly forgot my irritation and by the time I left, the rain had finally ceased.

I give this anecdote to offer a dose of realism from my experience abroad. I am having the time of my life, this is true, but of course, there are some bad days, too. Despite appearances and the carefully constructed image I publish, my life is not all sunshine-y here (literally or figuratively). One day I am fumbling through miscommunication and doubting my Spanish skills; other days, I am beaming with pride at my ability to carry on even the simplest conversations. There are days I am on cloud nine, seeing new sights and marveling at the wonders around every corner; and there are days when I really just want a hug from my mom or a good night’s sleep in my own bed.

But it is my intention not to waste a minute of my limited time here. That means forcing myself to go out in the rain when all I want to do is stay in and read a good book. It means choosing Spanish over English whenever I have the chance even if my brain is tired or I feel foolish in my blundering. It means finding the sunshine even through the rain, and constantly reminding myself to be grateful for every day I spend here, even the imperfect ones.

It’s the imperfection, after all, that reminds me that this is real life and not just a dream. It’s the rain that makes the flower grow.

 

It’s Always Sunny In Sevilla

Somehow I have been in Sevilla for a month already. Time always passes far too quickly– that is just a fact of life for the traveler. But in some ways, I feel as if I have been here forever. Everything is new and exciting, yet comfortable and familiar at the same time. I’ve have fallen quite happily into my rhythm here; late nights and slow mornings. Class, lunch, siesta, go out with friends, repeat. I have even joined a gym and sometimes you can catch me fumbling through workout classes taught by over-fit instructors screaming in Spanish. It’s quite the spectacule, let me tell you.

Sevilla is beginning to feel like home, rather than an extended vacation of sorts. Even so, it’s difficult to put into words this new way of life I am growing accustomed to. Instead, I’ll try my best to paint you a picture of my experience through some specific anecdotes from my past few weeks here.

Making the Grade

My first day of classes at University of Sevilla was one of confusion and disorganization which ended in frustration and blisters (poor shoe choice for walking around trying to find my classrooms…) However, my university experience has improved since that first chaotic week, and now, for the first time in years, I am excited to go to class. At first, the thought of two-hour classes taught 100% in Spanish terrified me, but they are slowly becoming easier, and I am fascinated by all that I am learning about Hispanic American literature, translation, Spanish history and religion. My professors speak as slowly and clearly as they know how, but it still takes some determination to stay tuned in for 2 hours at a time.

My favorite class, without question, is the only one I took solely for me– no credit, just pure enjoyment: The Culture and History of Spanish Gastronomy. In this class, our excited profesora, Carmen, teaches us the history and cultural significance of Spanish cuisines, and occasionally, we have the chance to go to a Spanish kitchen to put our knowledge into practice. And, of course, we get to eat the foods we cook. Last week, we made a traditional Spanish meal of Gazpacho, Tortilla de Patatas, Berejenas a la Plancha and Sultanas for dessert.

Mi Casa, Su Casa

When we first arrived in Sevilla, the international students met a line of expectant Spanish faces that would be our new “families” for the semester. We stood anxiously with our luggage waiting for the director to call our names and present our new families, a scene reminiscent of announcing camp counselor assignments– that same nervous excitement to see who you’d be paired with. My host mom Macarena greeted my roommate and I with a kiss on both cheeks and a radiant smile that revealed her braces as she led us to a car I have not seen once since that first day She expertly wove through narrow streets before arriving at our apartamento, a 3-story building nestled on a quiet street in city center above a tattoo shop. My homestay is within about 15 minutes in any direction from all the best places in Sevilla, and my living situation couldn’t be any better.

My madre Macarena is a woman of few words, but her language is food; she speaks through hearty and healthy dishes that remind me of my own mom’s cooking– heavily flavored by the knowing hand of a seasoned chef. Rafael, my padre, is jovial and talkative; we get along well. He entertains us with history lessons and stories over dinner, and he never runs out of recommendations for exploring this hometown of his. When he laughs, which is often, there’s a boyish sparkle in his eyes that I recognize in old photos of him that sit on the mantle. They both light up when they talk about their son, Carlos, who is my age and studying abroad in California this semester. I love them, I think, because they remind me so much of my own parents, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss them.

Living for the Weekend 

Four days of classes per week means every weekend is an opportunity to explore something new. In four weeks I’ve: marveled at the masterpieces in the Prado museum in Madrid; toured Toledo in all it’s historical beauty; crossed the border to Portugal to swim in the crystal-clear water of Lagos beaches; made friends with strangers in Málaga and caught the most gorgeous sunset of my life.

Not to mention all the cultural, historical and gastronomic wonders I’ve experienced right here in Sevilla. Last weekend, I walked along the world’s longest bar and celebrated in Sevilla’s success at breaking the Guinness World Record. I have strolled through the Plaza de España at golden hour when the sun illuminated the buildings in a blaze of orange and felt tears prickle my eyes as I contemplated the perfection of that quiet, solitary moment. I climbed the 37 ramps to the top of the Giralda to catch a glimpse of Sevilla from that crowded bell tower, the city sprawled out in a jumbled grid of terracotta roofs, terrazas and churches on every corner. In the Alcazar, I marveled at the architecture and artwork of a past civilization and felt as if I were touching history as I pressed my fingertips to the meticulously-crafted tiles. Just my walk to school each day takes my breath away as I fall into step with the tourists and locals along la Avenida de la Constitución, the Cathedral’s impressive sight never faltering; my growing comfort here does not diminish the city’s magnificence.

In truth, it’s not always sunny in Sevilla (it rained all week). But in a city this lively, its sunny disposition more than makes up for the occasional showers.

Looking Up

I never believed in love at first sight until I came to Sevilla.

Relax, I am not talking about a suave Sevillano boy. I am talking about Sevilla itself, a city so charming and magnificent that it stole my heart almost immediately. I have been to my fair share of cities, but never have I encountered one quite like Sevilla. In just a week, I have fallen quite madly for this enchanting place.

Most Sevillanos you meet will tell you they were born and raised here. It’s almost a running joke that no one ever really leaves Sevilla. Just spend a few hours wandering through the brick streets and taking in gorgeous sights, historic landmarks and delicious tapas, and you’ll understand why. The city’s vibrant energy juxtaposed with its leisurely pace of life makes for a place that instantly feels like home to anyone– locals and visitors alike. Even in a place so foreign and far from home, I can feel myself slipping into a comfortable lifestyle here, like wearing in a new pair of shoes until they’re perfectly conformed to your feet.

I spend a lot of my time here with my neck craned towards the sky, taking in the incredible scenery that exist just above ground level. I don’t want to miss a single sight, so I often walk with my eyes trained upwards, catching the way the sun illuminates the cathedral’s high pointed framework; the gauzy draping of the canopies from roof to roof that shade the streets from the incessant heat; the pretty baskets of lush greenery that adorn the terrazas; the arched columns and domes painted in exquisite detail; the silhouette of a rooftop against the vibrant blue sky; the wisps of palm leaves peeking out from behind that unique skyline.

The streets can be crowded with tourists, trolleys and taxis, but above all of this noise, there is a more constant, quieter city. One needs only to look up to find it– those corners and angles that separate sky from street. While everything around me moves, the structures stand firm and the clear, cloudless sky endures.

My outlook on life has taken on a similar, celestial quality. No longer am I looking down to analyze each step, nor staring blindly ahead with precise focus on the future; for the first time, I am taking the chance to look around at the everyday wonders I pass. I am still moving, yes, but with the faith that I will make it to the correct destination even if I spend the journey enjoying my surroundings.

Life should always be that way, shouldn’t it? Full of intention and presence instead of absentminded busyness. The future and the present shouldn’t be mutually exclusive; we should be able to fully enjoy both the life we are working towards and the one we are living right now.

Perhaps the sunshine has gotten to my head a bit, and my first post from Spain makes it sound like I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid or something. But all I know is that even in this foreign place full of newness and confusion, I feel more myself than I have in years. Sevilla feels like the beginning of something wonderful– new and scary, exciting and exhausting all at once.

Here in Sevilla, things are looking up.

 

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