As I walked alone through the streets of Barcelona at 3:30 a.m. last weekend, the same line ran through my mind over and over again: “Dad would kill me if he knew I was doing this right now.” It wasn’t the first time that I’d ducked out early and walked home from a party by myself. It’s one thing to stroll down the stretch of Sheridan Road between north and south campus, where blue lights illuminate every corner, familiar faces greet you and the Arch peaks out in the distance, a friendly reminder that you’re almost home. It’s another thing to walk a mile back to your dorm from the beachfront clubs of a bustling European city when your cellphone is in airplane mode. And yet, there I was, 4’11” and completely defenseless from any danger that might come my way, walking alone in the wee hours of the morning.
It all started when, after weeks of resistance, I promised my floormates I would go out with them. I live in a dorm where I share a kitchen with three American juniors from my study abroad program, one Australian masters’ student, one British exchange student and five freshman girls from Spain. The kitchen is our communal space. It’s where we cook, eat, do homework and speak to each other in Spanish. Getting to know my floormates has been the highlight of my time here. Our kitchen is where I feel most at home.
While I cherish my time in the kitchen with my floormates, I can’t quite keep up with their partying spirit. Every week, they ask me to go out with them, and every week I politely decline. As they blast reggaeton and drink gin in the kitchen, I curl up in bed and do homework or watch reruns of the Kardashians in Spanish. I’m usually drifting in and out of sleep by the time I hear them heading out at one or two in the morning. It’s no secret that I’m not a party animal. Large crowds and sweaty rooms thick with alcohol, grinding and other regret-inducing behavior makes me uneasy. And yet, here I am, spending the semester in one of the clubbing capitals of the world.
I didn’t come to Barcelona to party. I came here to immerse myself in Spanish for four months, to explore a new city, to meet people from across the world, to pretend to be European for a little while. After two years of the constant sprint of the quarter system, I was ready to spend a little time in a country that dedicates multiple hours each day to the siesta.
In the past two months, I’ve checked off most of the goals I listed in my study abroad application last winter. I’ve surrounded myself almost entirely with Spanish. My classes are all in Spanish, I watch TV in Spanish, I read in Spanish, I speak with my friends in Spanish, I take yoga classes in Spanish and I’ve even been dreaming in Spanish lately.
I’ve also gotten to know this city. When I first arrived here in August, I only walked in straight lines, nervous that I might get lost and need to find my way home. Now, I can get just about anywhere, and I don’t even need Siri to tell me how.
I expected to learn and grow and experience all of the cliché study abroad feels when I chose to spend four months of my life on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but I don’t think any planning or anticipation could have quite prepared me for the reality.
Studying abroad is not what it looks like on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. It’s not all picture-perfect landscapes and decadent brunches and gelato shaped like flowers and instant friendship with strangers. Some people spend their entire time abroad craftily curating their public existence, posting pictures and videos of their happiest, most photogenic moments and telling their friends and family how amazing their time has been. They leave out the uglier moments – homesickness, foreign university bureaucracy, loneliness, missing out on everything happening without you on campus.
It would be easy to post a happy picture to Instagram every few days with a witty caption about how amazing it is to be abroad in an effort to prove to everyone that I am having the time of my life. But it wouldn’t be honest, to my friends and family nor to myself. The truth is, every moment abroad has not been amazing. I’ve spent a lot of moments walking alone, as I did the other night, though thankfully, most of my solo strolls have taken place in broad daylight. As I walk, I think. Sometimes just about what errands I need to run, what homework I have to do or what I’m going to cook for dinner. But I also think about why I’m here, if I am doing this right. Not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself why I didn’t just come back to Northwestern this fall, where I could easily fall back into my comfort zone of friends, extracurricular activities and a place that I know like the back of my hand.
It’s easier to follow the path that’s already been set, to travel with the crowd, but if you don’t walk off on your own from time to time, you never really get to see the world around you.
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