I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about place and identity, and the fact that I’ve been away from home for so long just hit me when I visited an old friend studying in Florence. When I saw her, it jolted me back home, to who I am in Madison and Minneapolis, and I began crying because the distance between who I was when I left and who I am now grows wider every day.
It’s hard to describe facets of American culture until you live in a different country, where you’re constantly contrasting yourself against the new culture enveloping you. But interacting with Europeans, especially Spaniards, has made me reframe what it means to be American, or even what it means to come from the Midwest. For example, Midwestern passive aggression stands out a lot among Spanish bluntness. We have a tendency to take everything personally, but when your Spanish friend tells you that you wouldn’t look good with a septum piercing, they don’t mean anything rude by it (and as it will turn out, they’re right).
I’ve also come to realizations about the privacy and openness of Americans — it sounds contradictory, but we are simultaneously private about our lives while also being almost comically welcoming and open to meeting new people. This culture difference is especially noticeable in more reserved northern European countries; the London tube is so quiet you can hear yourself sweating. At the same time, we Americans love our privacy, something I didn’t think about until living with four Spanish girls. What are you eating? Where are you going this weekend? Are you getting up early tomorrow? Knowing the mundane details of each other’s lives is normalized, and it took me some time to get used to it. Once a roommate passed my room and asked me what I was doing while I was planning my week with my calendar. “Nothing,” I said. She pointed at my desk. Clearly I wasn’t doing nothing, I had a thing in front of me, so what was it? In the states, I could go several days without seeing a roommate just to find out when they returned that they had gone home for the weekend.
Although these cultural differences grow more obvious the longer I stay here, I don’t feel out of place. I’ve slowly come to adore Madrid, finding hidden art exhibitions scattered throughout the center, restaurant seating that spills into the street, the winding parks, and the ubiquitous iron balconies draped with potted plants and drying clothes. I loved the unhurried pace at which people walk. I love spending three hours eating dinner and drinking wine with friends, and I love no-nonsense waiters who don’t bother you every 5 minutes to see if everything’s tasting alright. And there are things I didn’t expect to love about Madrid. I’ve always felt very connected to the Minnesota/Wisconsin climate, the biting winters and humid summers, and being surrounded by lakes and rivers marked my upbringing. But I can’t get enough of Madrid’s wide desert sky and the mountains that ring the outskirts of the city. Dusk here is ethereal: no matter where I am in the city, the shadowed lighting and pink clouds make me catch my breath. I could go on. Every time I come home from a trip and land in Barajas airport, especially if I’m coming from a country that speaks neither Spanish nor English as a first language, I feel an overwhelming sense of coming home, of understanding and being understood, of familiarity.
In a way, falling in love with Madrid has been a lot like falling in love with a person. We had the honeymoon phase, when everything was new and exciting, and we went through a phase of boredom and frustration, of not understanding each other, to settle now into a comfortable love. I feel completely settled here, yet still surprised by what I find every day. And just like in a relationship, communication is important — you get out what you put in. There were weeks here where I didn’t take advantage of everything, because Madrid doesn’t often drop plans in your lap, you have to investigate the plays and concerts and restaurants that make living here so good.
I have been away from home for what feels like years and, while away, have found a home here and within myself. The changes to my identity, to the self that left Minneapolis, can sometimes only be revealed by a friend that reminds me of home, punctuated by some brief, uncontrollable sobbing. Stay open to change, embrace new cities and identities, and if you get the chance, move somewhere different to learn what your origins mean.