(I started writing this two weeks before I left for home. I could retrofit all the verbs to past tense now that I’m back, but I think I like it as-is.)
I’m all packed up. I’m living out of my big red backpack and wandering Cardiff with my graduation goggles on, turning even the wet rain into something to be missed (be grateful I stifled the urge to make that “something to be mist”).
I’m buying Coaltown coffee and Caerphilly cheese. I’m editing 2,000 photos that will gather virtual dust in iPhoto until I decide what to do with them. And I’m trying my best to balance on the tightrope that is the present, wobbling between reflection on my semester and compulsive planning for my final weeks. My good friend Jay confronted this problem once by taping a sign that just read “BE HERE NOW” on a wall for everyone to read. When I start feeling anxious I imagine taping that sign onto my forehead.
It helps. I want to be here as much as possible while I still can.
Wales has charmed and amazed me. I chose Cardiff from a huge list of cities. I’m sure I would have bloomed wherever I was planted, but now, I can’t imagine having settled anywhere else.
The cab driver who brought me to my dorm on day one called me “love” and brushed aside my attempts to tip. When I took a cab today, the driver helped me load and unload two giant suitcases, complaining good-naturedly about his back. Cardiff isn’t perfect – seagulls revel in overturned-bin trash on every corner, and people seem to think “iced coffee” means “coffee milkshake” (you have to ask for an “iced Americano”). But these small flaws just add character. We need something to complain about when it’s not raining, after all. Cardiff has overcome its coal-smudged industrial past to become a vibrant, beautiful city in its own right.
And the resulting sense of community is palpable. Welsh people’s love of country, coupled with a healthy sense of humor and a good strong voice to sing about it, is infectious.
I have to put my Welsh future on ice, though – at least for now. And that’s okay. Going home is exciting! In May I got to see some of my best friends for the first time since I left, a living postcard from Madison.
It was lovely. It also reminded me that time didn’t freeze when I went abroad. My friends were new again in ways – full of new experiences, liking new music – I met them anew, a little, again. And I guess they met me, too.
It’s impossible to explain or even to know all of the little changes in me since I’ve [posh accent] been to Europe. In many ways I haven’t changed at all. Before I left the States I imagined how I could reinvent myself in spring. Would I finally leave my lingering middle-school social awkwardness behind? (No.) Would I hide in my room every weekend, not up to the task of introducing myself to strangers? (Also no.) I daydreamed in extremes, like this. But this proved false: my experience was not one of reinvention. It was something closer to evolution. Directional selection, if you will. I did spend a lot of time alone in Europe, and I also spent a lot of time connecting with people from the world over. Both brought self-knowledge.
I found at my core a set of traits, ideologies, habits that make me Me, and I found these traits to be flexible – but only within a certain range. This disappoints me slightly and comforts me immensely. I may never be as adventurous or athletic or socially oriented as some of my friends, but I will always know how to be myself.
And like I mentioned, I have changed! In little ways. I’m better at small talk, at managing my time, at planning trips and packing. I’m a comfortable solo traveler, something I never did before this semester. I’ve cultivated my closet-extrovert qualities to the point where someone actually referred to me as “charismatic”. I swapped my terrible center part for side bangs (“side fringe”?). I’ve gained a sense of self and dealt with enough minor crises to learn that one way or another, everything usually works out in the end. I’m reminding myself of this again and again as I say my goodbyes to Europe, to Wales, to Cardiff. I am here now, and for that I am so grateful.
[Side note: Hiraeth is a new Welsh word I picked up the other day – it means homesickness, but for a home that no longer exists, or that never was. Homesickness tinged with nostalgia and grief. Waking up to the Brexit vote on June 24th I immediately felt hiraeth for the Cardiff I knew, and the Wales I knew, which may never again be what it was. It remains to be seen, of course, and I’m proud that Cardiff voted to stay in the EU even if the rest of Wales disagreed. But what a sad day for Great Britain.]