If ever there was an experience that shaped and transformed my life, it was this one. Second semester junior year of college, after my one year anniversary with my boyfriend, I set out on my dream trip: a six month study abroad program in Barcelona, Spain. My whole education was set up for this moment: an experience of a lifetime. All through childhood, I had watched friends go to Europe and yearned to be like them. We never had the money to go, so even when school trip opportunities came up, I couldn’t go, and it crushed me.
But finally, this was my moment. This was my trip. This was my journey, and I was going it alone.
I am actually struggling to find words to describe the profoundness of this experience for me. Wow, did it pack a punch of adulthood every step of the way. Faced with old hurts of feeling left out when groups of peers and friends formed, I struggled immensely with a mean, stuck-up roommate upon arrival and had massive anxiety attacks. I will admit—I almost called it quits and went back home. I was on that very edge of failure, and I couldn’t take this loneliness and rejection any longer. It hurt my heart—and affected my health.
I ended up at an infirmary, scared out of my mind in a foreign country with all that I loved back home, and no one but a few kind teachers to support me. I was in over my head. What made me think that I could travel by myself to a foreign country, with no support system, no job, minimal Spanish speaking skills and no fucking clue what I was doing? I cried for nights on end. My new host parents were very kind, but pushy about me choosing to stay alone in my room instead of getting out with friends. They made me feel even worse about not having friends or anyone to hang out with. I was more alone than ever before. I didn’t even have my best friend, or my boyfriend, or even my mother to talk to. Completely, and utterly, alone.
I actually cannot recall what shifted in me, or when. But one day I just seemed to have woken up, and decided to take my life into my own hands. Yup, I was alone. Hey!! I was finally ALONE! There was no greater freedom than being alone in a foreign country, and all this time I was crying about it.
My whole life I had wished to be away from rules and expectations, and here I was, wasting away exactly what I wished for. And here is where my transformation began.
I no longer sat in the house. I only had class 3 times a week, all in the afternoon (sweet, I know!), so every single weekday morning, I began my routine. Having little money, I walked everywhere. I started walking an hour and half each way to the beach every morning. Port Olimpic had become my special place. I remember that walk fondly. If I went back there today, 20 years later, I could still remember the path. Up around the corner, passed my favorite café where I had hot choco-latte every morning, passed the university I attended, down the long and busy highway, passed the zoo and then onto the path to the beach.
On days I didn’t have class, I extended my walk home passed my house to the Industrial Park, where I worked out in my very first gym ever, listening to mixed tapes sent to me by my loved ones. I gave up soda, which tasted horrid overseas. I ate pretty healthy, and really got in shape. I walked so much, and the little gym work helped with toning. I lost so much weight—40 pounds—and had such a dark tan (and new fashionable wardrobe) that I was literally unrecognizable by my family when I returned home.
I learned how to become healthy while living in Spain, and took care of myself. I also eventually found a
group of friends to hang out with, and we would cook at each other’s houses, go to the bars at night,
frequent our favorite pool hall weekly, go to the beach and then later party at Port Olimpic’s strip of
dance clubs. Eventually, life just fell into place there. I did things I never thought I would do. I mean,
besides giving up soda and actually going to the gym, which was a big deal for me, considering my obsession with food.
I would walk down the street at 3am completely unafraid.
Probably not the smartest thing for a young American blonde to do in Spain, but I did it, and did it often, feeling the liberation. Nothing would hurt me. I knew it in my soul. I needed to face the fear of being on my own more than the fear of any danger lurking in the shadows. It was MY shadow I had to be afraid of. The one that always held me back. That one that said, “You’re not good enough. You’re going to fail.” Well, I shut that voice of inner nonsense down when I proved it wrong. Self-confidence was mine
for the taking, and I embraced it whole-heartedly.
Along with being in a foreign country, came the enjoyment of exploring another culture. I tried new foods; learned about new traditions; became fascinated with the history of art and architecture. I learned Ethics from a really hot professor who spoke Catalan (a French/Spanish dialect of Barcelona) and survived both my (thankfully unreturned) attraction to him and the class. Not bad earning an A in a class where I had no idea what the hell the professor was saying day in and day out. I formed strong bonds
with the people there, all of which I have sadly lost contact with, but who remain in my heart as my crew of transformation travelers.
But what I took away most from this experience was my awareness of American judgment and superiority; of our close-mindedness (at least mine) and sense of entitlement. Assimilating back into home/school life in America was one of the absolute hardest experiences of my entire life. I had such
intolerance all of a sudden for any prejudiced remarks, even in “harmless” jokes. I felt constricted by the rules and confinements of my parents once again. I broke up with my boyfriend because I felt smothered and unsure if he was what I wanted anymore.
It was as if this trip brought to light everything I wanted in life so clearly: independence, success and freedom. What I wanted more than anything in this entire world was freedom. Spain gave that to me, and America took it back.
I knew it before I left, too. I sobbed before leaving Spain, my whole body rejecting the notion of going back home—as much as I missed those I loved so dearly. I just knew what awaited me there. I was a “new” person going back to an “old” life. They say you can’t go back to the past—although true, you can certainly be thrust into it without a safety net, and find yourself back under the lock and key of expectations (of others AND mine) without blinking. I have never been the same, though at this point in my life, I have never been closer to that sense of freedom. And I can feel it within my reach again.
I’ve come to realize that Spain was only a place, and that it wasn’t about the location or the experience, but rather, the space to explore who I truly was on a deep level. It was only a mental representation of what has always been in my heart. Once I had that awareness that “Barcelona” has been inside of me all along, I discovered that to get back to that place of independence, success and freedom, all I had to do was find the Spain within again.
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