Well, well, well! I hardly expected the hasty notes I hammered out in a half hour to be my only letter home in the month of June, but here we are. I’m very sorry. I just couldn’t carve out the time, what with my determination to sleep 8 hours and run each day and the Internet cafes closing by 12 every night. I’m sure that the Chronicle editorial board, which so recently rejected me, would laugh and toast their wisdom of they knew of my reticence. No matter. I’m back in the States, where I can sit in an air-conditioned room with a computer for hours at a time, and though my English is still awkward from disuse (I’m going nuts re-writing these sentences), I owe you all some words about my adventure.
I started my sojourn with a 24-hour swing through Philadelphia. (Whee, it’s fun to use alliteration again!) Bad weather delayed my connecting flight, and while we were idling, the crew found some mechanical problems on the plane. Before I knew it, I was sitting alone in a darkened but dull Radisson restaurant, USAir vouchers in my pocket, chewing an imitation cheesesteak while watching Duke lacrosse captain Dan Evans argue his innocence on a muted television, my plane to Madrid already well over the Atlantic. When I called my mother to tell her, she was happy about it! She said she’d had a bad feeling about my flight and had prayed all night for bad weather. If she hadn’t, we would’ve taken off in a plane with mechanical problems. So, thanks, Mom!
Airlines like to advertise about all the different nations to which they run flights, but they don’t say much about the frequency of said journeys. USAir only ran one flight to Madrid each day, so I had a light of daylight to kill before I departed. Luckily, I met a party of four middle-aged Hoosiers in my hotel, these stranded en route to their vacation in Italy. Three – Ron, Jane, and Taye – were obstetricians. The fourth, Newt, was a retired Air Force mechanic. Like all soldiers who don’t actually have to kill anybody, he had great war stories, and he regaled me with them throughout the day. Ron was married to Jane, and Taye to Newt, but all were remarriages, all their children grown, out of state, out of mind. I didn’t open up much to my elders, strangers as they were, but I enjoyed their company and the city. I have to chuckle when I think about it now. There I was, admiring Independence Hall, Constitution Hall, Bookbinder’s Café, the Liberty Bell, and so on and so forth, thinking about how ancient they were, but in Spain, monuments from this era were considered practically new.
Anyway, I’ve now said far more than enough about Philadelphia. This is a journal about Spain, and to Spain we go. For now, I’d like to write about the emotional component of study abroad. I suspect this is the most common reason, besides graduation requirements, that people don’t go. When I turned down the opportunity to visit Valencia the summer after my junior year of high school, I told myself it was because I didn’t want to miss summer training for the cross country season, but that wasn’t the whole truth. Really, I didn’t want to leave my home and friends for that long, to go that far. I didn’t want the stress of speaking and thinking in another language, especially after the program director said it would be “sink or swim” out there. When I got a girlfriend that spring, I felt even better about my choice. How could I leave her for such a long time?
That summer, I barely ran; I broke up with my girlfriend, and all the people who went abroad had a great time, language proficiency, and tons of stories. I decided that when I went to college, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity, no matter what. At Duke, the typical study abroad semester is the fall of junior year, and that fit into my plans perfectly. So for two years, and especially this semester, I “prepared myself” – rather, I filled out the applications early, turned down volunteer opportunities for the fall, and ruminated about how difficult speaking Spanish would be, how much I would miss my friends, how much I would miss meeting the new freshman class. The trip was always in the back of my mind, sure, but it was never in the front of it. I was too worried about studying for finals, shopping for clothes, and ensuring the safety of the stuff I left with my friends to hold in their apartments for the fall. (So worried was I about Differential Equations that I forgot to get into a storage unit with other study abroad students; sorry, Randy.) When people asked me if I was excited about leaving for Spain, I had to honestly tell them no. It was an abstraction. I didn’t get serious about the trip until I said “Adios, era un placer” to a pretty girl from Smith College at Madrid Barajas Airport, paid 30 euro for a cab ride to our hotel in the suburb of Alcalá de Henares, and stepped into my hotel room: 3 AM Eastern time, 10 AM Madrid time. “No more English,” I said to myself in Spanish. “It’s serious now.”
“Hola,” I said to my roommate, who had just woken up. “Me llamo James. He llegado. Espero que…no haya echado algo.”
“Hey, what’s up,” he responded. “I’m Roy. It’s good that you’re here. Now we’re missing only four people.”
So, the immersion wasn’t as intense as I expected. No matter. Even though all my new friends spoke English with each other, and many signs had English translations directly under them, I was still far from my homes – far from Carmel, which I wouldn’t see until July, and farther still from Duke, to which I won’t return until January. The language barrier was a constant stress; halfway through the trip, I realized I hadn’t smiled in a week because I was always wearing a look of confusion, concentration, or apprehension instead. But the heart yearns for a home, even the heart of a world-traveler, and so within weeks, Madrid wasn’t a foreign city; it was home. My host mother, Lili García, didn’t speak a lick of English; her first sentence which I understood was “You speak Spanish very poorly;” she fed me too much; my room was cramped; her 30-ish children still lived in the house, and after one night, I loved it and requested the same house for the fall.
This led me to wonder about my feelings for the United States. I had always believed that America was the best country in the world, but after witnessing the relative contentment of the Spaniards, I had to wonder, “In what manner?” America is the wealthiest and most powerful nation, but for everyone else in the world, it is not home. Wealth and power are not as important as family and friends and familiarity. For a Spaniard, the “best” country in the world is Spain, and for Frenchmen, it is France, but honestly, we can’t even talk about “best” and “worst.” So, I now admire immigrants even more. To leave home for a better life, to make home another place, must take a large amount of motivation and devotion.
When I wrote about my trip on the 1st of June, I said I was having trouble balancing between getting to know my Duke friends and actually learning Spanish. Colin advised me to screw the Dukies because I’d have plenty of time to see them when I got home…er, when I got back to the university. This was sage advice, and in the couple weeks after that I made great improvements because I insisted on always speaking Spanish with the other students, but I couldn’t hold out forever. The more I got to know the other students, the more I liked them. To converse with more than one of them at once, or more than 5 minutes at a time, I had to use English. And then I fell in love with one of the girls on the trip, and I wanted to talk to her a lot, and it was all over. It was a rather stupid thing to do, considering I won’t see her again until next year, and besides that, I don’t think she was particularly interested in me, but if it weren’t sudden and uncontrollable, they wouldn’t call it falling, would it?
So, as the trip wound to a close, I wasn’t sad because I was leaving Spain; I knew I’d return in the fall. I wasn’t elated about returning home; I knew everything was the same as it was when I’d left. I was sad because our group, our 21 Duke students, would never all be in the same place again. We’ll all go back to our old groups of friends and see each other two or three at a time at best. We had created an environment, with common knowledge and inside jokes and rules of conversation and so forth that we’ll never have again. Not everyone in the group liked each other, but at least everyone knew each other as individuals, as people. Saying goodbye to them was like dying. Every friend I make has a unique relationship with me, with unique memories and jokes and patterns of conversation, and has brought out a different side of my personality. So when I say a final goodbye to a friend, I’m saying goodbye to that part of me, as well, the part we shared. This trip – finding a new place, making a home, making friends – is a microcosm of my college career. When I graduated from Carmel High School, I knew I’d still see my friends around town. When I graduate from Duke, with my friends from California, Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida, Hong Kong…well, we’ll meet again in heaven, right? That hope is what keeps me from getting too morose about it.
I’m sorry that got so vaclempt. I suppose I miss the place and my new friends a lot. Now, it’s 2:30 in the morning, and I’d like to accomplish some things tomorrow, as well, so good night until tomorrow.