by Gianna Paden
My fingers gripped so tightly onto my red bus pass that I was surprised it didn’t snap. I stepped onto the bus and muttered “buenas” to the driver while simultaneously scanning the seats for one that was free. I sat down and let it sink in that I was alone in a foreign city where people didn’t speak my native language. My heart was beating rapidly. As more stops were announced, I began to doubt if I really knew the name of my own stop. It took me being alone — really alone — and hearing words in a different language than that of my thoughts to fully realize that I was living in a country and culture different from my own, even though I had already been there for a month.
In September 2016, I arrived in Madrid, Spain, on a normal Tuesday morning with two other Greenville College students. None of us really knew each other (okay, it’s GC, so we sort of knew each other), but we were going to spend the semester doing life together — taking classes, eating meals, exploring, and using each other as mobile translation dictionaries. It took a few weeks for the realization to sink in that I would be living there for the next three and a half months with people that would only know the “Spain” me. We all lived with the same host family, so we became close quickly. However, there were many times that the loneliness felt palpable. I can remember writing in my journals that I thought I was feeling homesickness, but after more reflection, I realized I was missing the sense of belonging and the feeling that comes with being known on a deeper level. I would want to call someone, but with the time difference, many times those people were in bed. However, those lonely times were perfectly balanced with moments like sitting on a terrace with my host mom, painting her nails, and talking about our dreams and heartaches. She was able to share intimate parts of her life with me, and I with her. There is something beautiful about the sense of home as well.
We settle into the comfort of familiarity and routine willingly, mingling with the same people day in and day out. These people are comforting to us, usually sharing our ideas and values. Throughout my life, I have been given amazing opportunities to see our vast, diverse, beautiful world. I’ve traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, India, South Africa, and Mozambique, where I faced challenges, but I never felt pushed to discomfort outside of the circle in the sand that I had drawn for myself.
However, by going to Spain, I realized that the problems I faced in the developing countries were miniscule in comparison to being forced to come to terms with myself. For each of the former trips, I had at least one person with me who knew me and knew me well — knew stories about me, knew my habits, tendencies, and things that would irritate me. That seemed to cloud the feeling of loneliness. However, that was not the case in Spain. I’m from Hillsboro, IL, only 30 minutes north of Greenville, so when the opportunity came up for me to study abroad, I fully embraced it, thinking of it as a way to get out of my familiar routine and comfort zone (thousands of miles out of it), while simultaneously experiencing one of the world’s most vibrant cities, chock-full of history and art. I do not regret it.
Even though Spaniards are individualistic, they place a lot of value on relationships. My host mom would sometimes question, and, at times, chastise us for the short time we would spend around the table. They start and end their days at later times, and they linger around the table, eating soups or tapas like tortilla española, olives, and bread. They take life at a slower pace and realize the need for rest, even incorporating a “siesta” time into every day, as well as many coffee breaks. From Spaniards, I learned how to build relationships, which is something that we take for granted in a small community because our relationships are frequently handed to us. When missing home, times like sitting in a courtyard with 15 other Spaniards and loading our plates with paella make it all worth it. I gained the skills needed to build a relationship with someone different from me and my culture and language. I now feel confident that I can connect with and communicate fluently with someone who feels more comfortable speaking Spanish.
When I arrived home, and even while I was still in Spain, people would ask me the question that I never knew how to answer: “How is/was your trip?” Really, it was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. This is surprising, considering I was able to study and travel in Europe for three and a half months, while living with an incredible host family and being immersed in a beautiful culture that now feels like a part of me. I would sometimes scroll through social media and see the things my friends were doing, and I would yearn to be with them. If you look through my social media accounts, it really is a carefully cultivated collection of memories — you don’t see the hard parts of traveling like missed flights, buses, or train strikes. Yes, my experience was amazing and life-changing, but it was also extremely difficult. I felt more alone than I have ever felt in my life, but it is something for which I am now thankful. I learned my own strengths, limits, and weaknesses, while being stretched to do and think in ways that I would have never thought possible. Being alone and independent makes us come to terms with ourselves, which is something we’re not required to do much when we’re in our bubbles in a tiny Illinois town.
Studying abroad was and is one of the best experiences of my life, and I hope anyone who is able and willing to would take the opportunity as well. It helped me practice a few habits that I think are essential. I learned to be alone, learned to leave my comfort zone, learned to try foods that I had never heard of, and learned to build relationships out of my context. Having these experiences and being able to practice these life skills in a beautiful culture and country has been the best part of my college experience.