I’ve been home now for a week. I have the highlights of my year and month long backpacking trip planned and polished for when I’m asked, I’ve seen both sides of my extended family, and experienced a little reverse culture shock. Let me back up and cover the end of my year: the last two months of my year abroad were easily the best two months of the year, despite four weeks of various final exams and essays. I grew comfortable within my group of friends from my program, closer than ever with my roommates, and deeply comfortable in Spain to the point where when I left Spain on my backpacking trip I was aware that I was leaving my comfort zone, my comfort zone now the place that was stressful and foreign to me months ago.
Before finals, I had a string of weekend trips that were almost overwhelming in the context of my classes but so very worth it. I spent a very long weekend in Paris with Mariel falling in love with boulangeries and street cafes and Monet. I visited a friend in Fez, Morocco and had an unforgettable weekend of wandering the old medina and bartering with vendors, marveling at tiled arabic script on the sides of decaying buildings. I hopped over to Milan on my last weekend before the end of the semester to visit my grandparents (always nice to find bits of home abroad). They treated me to a lovely dinner and a night at the opera, which is definitely something I wouldn’t have thought to do by myself but enjoyed immensely. With these weekend trips behind me, I had about two weeks to finish my semester. Did I do as well in my classes as I could have? No. Do I regret going to Fez instead of class, or Milan instead of doing my readings? Absolutely not.
Ending the semester was bittersweet because although I was ready to end the academic part of the year, I had to say goodbye to fellow abroad students that mean a lot to me. Most people in my program went home early to mid-June, and I was backpacking June 1st-27th, so I had to say goodbye to everyone before that. There’s something to be said about maintaining connections with the people who had the exact same experience of language challenges, culture shock, and adjustment issues as I did. Having a support system back home while I was abroad was important, but now that I’m home, it almost feels like I hallucinated the entire year because it seems like nothing here has changed. I’m sleeping in my childhood room, walking my dog the same route I’ve been walking for years. A part of me is thinking, did Madrid really happen? What proof do I have? But the people I grew close with abroad that I now get to see in the U.S. will be one of my strongest connections to the past year.
Like I mentioned, I spent June 1st through 27th backpacking across Europe from Madrid to Berlin on a route that I planned via train. If there’s anyone reading this who has reservations about traveling alone for whatever reason, my only advice is to do it. Be scared, and do it anyway. The power that you gain from becoming your own best friend and letting other interactions be a supplement to your happiness and not a requirement for happiness is a beautiful thing. The logistics of my trip looked like this: I spent two days in Bilbao and one in San Sebastián eating some of the best food of my life (fresh octopus, foie gras, the rarest possible steak) and seeing incredible contemporary art at the Guggenheim museum. Next was the south of France, which coincidentally was host to many train strikes at the time I was there. I stopped in Montpellier for a night and then spent two nights in the unbelievably charming Aix-en-Provence, where I was lucky enough to be invited to someone’s birthday. I was served dinner and wine and chatted with Spaniards, a French girl, an Australian, my Korean Airbnb host, and an Italian. I visited Cezanne’s studio and spent a beautiful couple days before moving on to Nice, which was grittier than I expected (hello, pebble beaches and catcalling) but still an excellent time. Swimming in the ocean by myself, not thinking about anything but how beautiful the world is and tasting the salt on my lips, was one of the best moments of my trip. After Nice (and some visits to the Chagall and Matisse museums) I headed to Italy for three head-spinning days in Rome. If anyone reading is planning on visiting Rome for a summer weekend, I recommend avoiding that plan and going on the off season, because I have never seen so many tourists in my life. The Vatican was admittedly amazing, but most things in Rome just made me think damn, the Catholic church has so much money. After my brief but busy time in Rome, I visited Venice, easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. A big apology to all the Italians that have been driven out of Venice because of its popularity with tourists, it’s really quite sad. The Peggy Guggenheim collection there was amazing, though.
After Venice I left the comfort of the Romance language countries for Croatia. I spent two night in Zagreb and ended up spending one day with a Minnesotan girl who grew up hardly ten minutes away from me. We visited the Museum of Broken Relationships (tender, funny, heartbreaking) and had a typical Croatian meal of goulash. Zagreb was nice, especially after being in two of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. I moved on then to Budapest for three nights. I unearthed a bit of the history on a walking tour, where I met two other girls who were traveling alone, one Scottish and one Dutch, and they proved to be great company for the rest of the day. The baths in Budapest were lovely, and the nightlife is… vibrant. Be careful around palinka is all I can say. After Budapest I spent a quick night in Bratislava and then moved on to Vienna, which I like to describe as Paris without the Parisians. Gorgeous architecture and some of the best museums in all of Europe. I quickly fell in love with Klimt and Schiele. I also went to an opera for a three euro standing ticket, which was a great experience. After Vienna I spent a few days in Prague, which is charming as ever, but I think I enjoyed it more in November; at this point in my trip a freakish heat wave swept Europe and I was trapped baking in the sun in the Old Town Square, eating overpriced street food and just generally crabby. My final stop was Berlin, and god, what a city to end on. I took a phenomenal tour of some underground bunkers used in the second world war and went to various history museums. Berlin is not beautiful in the way that Vienna or Venice is, but it has an intense, artistic energy and young population, which leads to great nightlife; people drinking in the streets and watching street performers, sitting down by the river and going out until long past dawn.
Meeting people when you travel alone proves to be much easier than expected. I think people are more open to talking to you when you’re alone. Some people I met I spent several days with, and others just an afternoon. One girl I met on a train in France ended up in five of the same cities that I was in, so I saw her in each city and developed a more long term friendship than other people I met while traveling. Everywhere I went I was surprised by the generosity of people and the kindness of strangers. I was also met with the privilege of traveling with an American passport, where no authorities will ever think twice about letting you into the country. There were several times traveling alone when I made mistakes or fell into a bad mood, but the thing about being alone is that you are the only one responsible for your mood. Eat some food, see some art, journal a bit, talk to someone on the train, you’ll be just fine. I have never felt more resilient, independent, and free than this trip, and then suddenly I was back in Madrid. I had four days to say goodbye to my roommates, four girls I love with all my heart, and to pack up my apartment into one suitcase and face the reality of leaving. The shock of leaving hit me like a sack of bricks a few days before I left my apartment for the last time; I had multiple crying fits a day and felt apathetic about packing, like I couldn’t muster the energy to do anything but feel sad. Leaving Madrid was like breaking up with a person: an intensely emotional cycle of denial, sadness, and finally melancholic acceptance.
There have been a few distinct challenges that come with being home, but the biggest one is how anticlimactic it all is. I’ve been away for ten months and seen more of the world than I could have ever hoped to see in such a short period of time, and suddenly I’m just done. Nowhere to be. No metro to take me to the city center, no tapas and drinks, no energetic street culture. How sobering it was to drive down the streets of Minneapolis on a beautiful Friday night at 10 pm and not see anyone outside. It’s strange to be among wide streets in a city built for cars, blocks meticulously laid out in rectangles instead of winding hills running into each other, no neighborhoods crowded with centuries-old apartment buildings, no laundry flowing off of balconies. It’s strange to watch Americans interact, talking six feet apart, strangers conversing the same way lawns spread before houses: with too much space. I went to a concert with my parents the second night I was home and was overwhelmed with the Midwestern-ness of it all, the old man who tried to engage me in conversation, the passive aggressive comments, the turning in for an early night. When the elderly gentlemen unknown to me asked me “Do you like what yer seeing?” referring to the concert and I had to ask him to repeat what he was asking several times, I felt the way I felt in Madrid at the beginning of the year, when I couldn’t for the life of me understand what the doorman of my apartment was saying, what the people in the post office wanted me to know, what my roommates said to each other in slang-filled conversation. I feel like a foreigner here sometimes, restless, eager to get out again and explore a new corner of the world and make it my home, but I’ll do that in due time. Until then, I can bring confidence and independence and my second language back here, recontextualize it, and blaze forward into next year post-abroad.