Saturday, June 22, 2013

People, Places, and Things. But Mostly People.

As I sit here this morning trying to find the right words to accurately begin and end this post, I can barely believe I've officially finished my first extended stay abroad.  It's been exactly a year since I was offered my "job" teaching English in Spain, and 10 months since I moved here.  I have just two more days before I get on a plane and head back to the states for the summer, and I know how important it is for me personally to get my reflections on the last year of my life down in writing before the magic of the first year abroad vanishes into the comfort of being home again.

There are almost too many things I want to write about today.  School, travelling, culture shock, friends, food, transportation, weather, all the negative, and all the positive.  But as I look back on the last 10 months of my life, one thing stands out to me no matter where I was or what I was doing:


I am and forever will be a people person, so naturally this is a huge part of how I experience life.  We as humans have such an incredible ability to impact other humans in ways we mostly will never realize because something insignificant to one person can mean the world to another.  It sounds cliché (don't worry that fact is not lost on me) but it's still true nonetheless.  People shape our views of culture.  They change our feelings either positively or negatively about an entire country.  How many times have you said, or heard from another person, "Well I have friends from *insert any state or country* and they are all *insert generalizing phrase*"?  We all do this and we always will, and while of course it's dangerous to generalize and stereotype, this fact should help us all remember that we are individuals but we still represent a whole.  It's always my goal, knowing how many erroneous (but, yes, sometimes true) stereotypes exist about Americans, that wherever I go I try to change at least one person's mind about what Americans are like.  If I succeed in doing that, I can go home feeling accomplished.

But anyway, I am getting away from myself a bit. People.  My interactions with people here in Spain in my first couple of months were what made me so negative about the new life I was living, while they were exactly the thing that made me fall in love with Dublin the minute I got into my taxi from the airport.  Yes, when you make friends with people, that always changes your mind, but the split second conversations you have with a cashier at the grocery store or a person you ask for directions on the street can have just as much of an impact on your impression of the society as your close friends will.  This was something I started to learn really quickly, and it made me reflect on what it's like at home too (something that usually happens when you travel) and I began to feel more and more proud of being from the Midwest and the fact that we are generally such nice people. Specifically for the fact that even if we are having a bad day, you will rarely encounter someone in a store or on the street who won't smile and say hello to you.

This brings me to another thing that I learned this year to a larger extent than I ever have in the past, and that is the striking differences between people in my own home country.  Most people who know me, know that I've spent most of my twenties making friends with people from different parts of the world.  I left college with just as many foreign friends as American, and I even kept in touch with more of the people who lived halfway across the world than the ones who lived on the next block.  So when I came to Spain that was my expectation: avoid Americans, make all best friends with Spaniards and inevitably all other foreigners in Madrid.  But to my surprise, I spent a majority of my time with other Americans.  Anyone else would probably feel bad about this, but considering my track record, this is somewhat of an accomplishment.  I met people who ACTUALLY lived in New York, hadn't just visited for a band or choir trip or summer vacation.  Someone who ACTUALLY lived and worked in Washington D.C. and hadn't just gone there for the Safety Patrol trip in 5th grade.  A Harvard grad who was ACTUALLY not a stuck-up, hoity-toity asshole.  As we spent more and more of our time together and became close friends, it was amazing to me just how different our lives were.  And the same for them when I would describe growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin and most times didn't understand how that would be weird to anyone else since almost everyone I know from home grew up on a farm or at least nearby one.  In a lot of ways I am most grateful for this experience because it was something I never expected to gain out of living outside of the U.S.

As I prepare to leave for the summer, I can't help feeling a push and pull of contrasting emotions.  Knowing I'm coming back again for another school year makes me feel like there's nothing really to feel sad about because I will be back again in a couple of months.  At the same time, I've been watching as all the people I've grown close to in the last 10 months leave one by one and go back to their lives in the United States, Canada, Germany, England, Norway... and knowing that I will come back next year to just one or two people I met this year makes me incredibly sad.  Yes, the city will be the same and all the restaurants, clubs, and cafes I love will be here, but when you take the people out of the place, the place becomes different.  I would be lying to myself if I said it will be easy to meet new people here when many of the things we will do together will be overshadowed by my memories of doing the exact same things with people who are gone.  Picnics in Retiro, people watching in Sol, Bar hopping in Malasaña.  There will be chances to experience new things with the new people I meet too, and that is exciting, but there will always be a special place in my heart for the people I met my first year here. Because as I've come to learn, 

It's not where you are, it's who you're with.   


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