End of yet another week at Complutense, followed up ahead by a final group session with all of the Georgetown program students in Madrid this semester and a Goodbye dinner in the evening for the Spanish mentors and us. Having just gotten out of my Islam in Spain final, I was in full throttle finals mode, thinking about all of the work I have left ahead of me. It was quite an ironic situation though because the next day, I was headed on a three-day vacation to Barcelona, only to come back to Madrid and study like crazy for another three days and rock my remaining finals. As I could only respond to the situation I had put myself into with “Well, that’s Spain for ya” and almost laughed at how I would have already dropped out of Georgetown had I casually planned a weekend trip during such an important time in the semester, I walked into the Facultad de Geografía y Historia and sat down in the second row of classroom B-16.
The powerpoint titled, “Reverse Culture Shock” finally revealed why we were here. After all, I needed to get home, shower, get ready, and head back out for the Goodbye dinner at 9pm right after this meeting. I hoped it wouldn’t last too long, although I knew I was only kidding myself once I read the first reflection activity we would be doing. Our coordinator Ani began talking about logistical things to keep in mind as the semester came to a close: closing bank accounts, getting letters of recommendation from professors, deciding whether or not to pay for the Metro pass for the month of June. All good things to keep in mind, until she put up a slide titled, “Reflection On Your Study Abroad Experience.” Crap. I didn’t really want to reflect, I just wanted to get back to the U S of A and do stupid things with my friends again. The last thing I wanted to do was reflect on how great of an experience Spain had been, particularly because throughout the past four months, the one thing I had learned was that everyone tells you you’ll love study abroad meanwhile almost everyone also leaves out the fact that you’re going to have some god awful days mixed in. I knew my answer of how my semester had been when people would ask me upon my return to the US: enriching and eventful. Neither of those responses was false by any means. My experience had indeed made my world smaller and my insights bigger, and it was indeed filled with a series of various events. Was studying abroad the best experience I ever had in my entire life, and did I wish I could go back and do it all over again immediately instead of returning home? Not exactly. I had indeed learned a lot though, and I wouldn’t forget to add that it was non-academic enrichment I had gained overseas.
I was relieved when Ani started us off slowly by asking us to write down three things we liked and disliked about both Spain and the US. This was easy; this I could do. I thought the dislike section of Spain would be easy enough, as waking up and dragging myself to the University was an act of God I pursued every morning, four days in a row. Even my day off every Monday couldn’t diminish the pain of this venture. Once I would arrive campus, I often times held my breath to subside prospects of getting lung cancer via the second-hand smoke of my fellow Complutense peers (read: EVERYONE AT SCHOOL), although needing to respire every once in a while pervaded this from ever being fully accomplished. What did I like about Spain? Well, the public transportation is indeed terrific, the people are quite kind, and the proximity of everything is a major draw. On the other hand, the diet consists of too many too carbs for my digestive system, it’s far away from my friends whom understand and love me even if I do not consume alcohol, and the politicized nature of my University adds to the repugnance I feel for it. The list seemed pretty balanced in all honesty, and I easily flew through the things I loved about the US, until I got to the things I disliked about the United States. Disliked? I had never really thought about it, to be frank. I knew what I loved, obviously: hamburgers, the ease of the language, and the sense of home and community I had found in both my hometown and DC where I attend school, but what didn’t I like about home? Everything is far away—that’s one. The pressure of day-to-day life is definitely another. I sat staring at my paper for a full ten seconds, cursing this exercise because I already knew the lesson, and my yearning to get back to the United States soon began to be challenged by the country that was as close my comfort zone as Spanish futbol is to American football. Thankfully, Ani saved me by announcing it was time to share, and I was convinced that although this exercise would prove I will indeed miss Europe, I could still proudly state that I would not experience any culture shock back home. Ani flew through the activity, when we shifted to a topic that did indeed make me uneasy: saying our goodbyes.
Who was I going to say goodbye to? I would see all of my new Georgetown friends in the fall, I didn’t really have any Spanish friends at Complutense, and my host family had their own vacation planned for as soon as I headed out. It’s not that I didn’t like Spain, but there wasn’t really anyone here who would miss me, whereas I already had a Facebook thread going with all of my Georgetown friends ready to have dinner and froyo upon my arrival back to DC. I’m sure I would miss things about Spain when I got back to the states, but goodbye? No one really cared about my departure here. Everyone’s lives would continue on like normal after I left, and I didn’t expect anything more from them in that regard.
At the Goodbye dinner that evening, I met up with Isabel and Gemma, two of my closest Spanish mentors, and girls I had come to love as my own sisters throughout the past semester. We all gave our program coordinators Ani and Miky a thank-you gift for all they had done for us, and they made a speech giving us their best wishes in our lives. It finally hit me. In our lives? No ‘see you next semester’ or ‘we’ll catch you back at Georgetown’, just a simple ‘have a great life’. It certified the sheer uncertainty of never seeing the two people that had answered every painful question, corrected every broken Spanish phrase I attempted to mutter through, and genuinely gave me the same bit of love and encouragement that I have received from my parents throughout these past four months. As one of our classmates mentioned at the dinner, these two women had become my “guardian angels”, the people that kept me sane in a city and country that was completely different than my upbringing, and they had done it all with no expectation of anything in return. Isabel and Gemma had befriended me with no intention or purpose, just the hope that I would receive and share their company in laughter and jokes about Spain. And after four months of assimilating my entire life into this new culture, thanks to all of them and every madrileño I had every met, all I could say was goodbye? It didn’t seem right, because I hadn’t given them anything in return, until a friend had mentioned something I had never once thought of: I had offered myself as someone who dared venture through it all.
These past four months have been an experience in its purest sense. Jumping on a plane to Spain, the land of alcohol and jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) was no joke for a brown, Muslim girl that doesn’t partake in the very things that make this country exist to its residents. It has been rough, and not every day has been great. In fact, there were many days where I missed home like none other and just wanted to sit in my room and cry, as I saw what my life could have been like had I stayed in the US through all of the Facebook photos, graduation invitations, and events being planned right in front of my eyes. All the weddings, the graduations, the concerts, the nights out, the classes, the new people, the family I had built at Georgetown—I had missed a great deal throughout my time in Madrid, that is for sure. But finally, the ‘goodbye’s’ were what made me examine the glass half full: I had learned SO incredibly much about myself. I am indeed a homebody, I enjoy traveling with a plan, I still do not find interest in partaking among and within activities including alcohol, I prefer a few close friends to various acquaintances, my family’s support and love keeps me going at the toughest times, and I am still and will always be on my world-wide search to find the best frozen yogurt in the entire world (clue: involves self-serve and chocolate).
When talking to a friend of mine named Esteban on the trip, I began feeding off of his experience, one filled with many obstacles and a tough story, about the struggles of living in Spain, and I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t enjoy my study abroad experience, wishing I could get out of here ASAP. Yet, talking to another friend on the trip named Allison gave me greater insight. She told me that you don’t really begin to miss a place until it has an end date. Once she bought her ticket back to the US, the feeling of leaving finally settled in, and she began to really appreciate Spain for what it had to offer. I think the Goodbye dinner did it for me, reminding me of all the things I will be saying goodbye to and have indeed enjoyed being a part of for the past four months, and despite the fact that it has had its ups and downs, learning in non-academic ways has indeed made my world smaller and my insights greater. I’m not done reflecting yet, but I think there is value in recognizing that what makes an experience like study abroad so great is not just the good days, but also the bad ones. No one comes back and tells you about the days they just missed peanut butter or played Spanish Scrabble for two hours with their host family on a Friday night instead of going out, but these thoughts and experiences shape your study abroad experience just as much as the wanderlust travels, the cultural outings, and the friends you make in an Irish Pub in downtown Madrid along the way.
This isn’t the official goodbye to Madrid, since I’ve still got a month long-run with this big, bad city, but I must indeed credit it now for teaching me how to love: a city, a person, an experience, or a fleeting thought. And although I did not fall in love with Madrid, reflecting on my time here has gotten me closer. It was my friend, my enemy, my confidante, my betrayer, my greatest gift, and sometimes even my worst nightmare, and through all of that, I can say that this place has indeed become my almost lover. So thanks, Madrid—here’s to you, kid. And may there be many more to come just like you.