Two Sundays ago marked 7 years since the day I waved sadly to my family, stepped through airport security and onto a plane alone. I turned away from everything familiar and easy to spend six months in a country where normal festival activities include running away from angry bulls, small children and drunk adults brandishing fireworks and other explosives, and ruthlessly throwing tomatoes at fellow revelers in tiny cramped streets.
A country where they speak an entirely different Spanish than what was taught to me throughout 6 years of Spanish classes (vale, what?) Where laughter is written out jajaja, where girls have mullets and tiny white pants, and the only things needed for an unforgettable party is a corner of the Plaza de la Virgen and bottles of €1.50 wine. Where they socialize in the streets, close everything down for part of the day and, as I’ve come to realize, have perfected the art of living.
I stepped on the plane 7 years ago to begin six months studying abroad in Valencia, Spain.
I did everything an American girl in a study abroad program is supposed to do. My experiences were both utterly generic, and singularly amazing. I moved into a small apartment with four international roommates and at times had double that amount of people living in the space.
I danced the nights away, drank tequila and cheap wine, had dinners that consisted of Milka chocolate bars and bread. I lounged on the beach during the day or had lingering picnics in parks that lasted until twilight. I had deep, soul baring conversations with people whose names I couldn’t pronounce, let alone remember. I flirted in Spanish, kissed in Italian, fell in love in Portuguese, and realized that music is one language that everyone speaks. I sang in the streets, and laughed like crazy, but most of all, I was simply….me.
As my parents like to point out when the subject comes up, the time was light on studying and heavy on partying and general hedonism. Put thousands of young, adventurous travelers in a warm Spanish city on the Mediterranean and, well, what else could be the outcome? But even with the paucity of time spent in an actual classroom, I maintain that it was the greatest learning experience of my academic career to date.
Did I learn the nuances of Spanish Regional Economy 101 or how to conjugate the past participle of the verb To Be? My actual grades from that time say no - but I picked up more verb tenses in a dark bar talking to an attractive native speaker, than from endless classroom repetition. I also learned the nuances of myself. For the first time, being half Filipina/half American was something that I needed to embrace as an actual identity, not just something that made me different and therefore weird (in my hometown), or slightly exotic and therefore probably Hawaiian (in college). I became exactly who I was meant to be and in doing that, opened up to things that I imagine I was always meant to do.
Six months flew by in a blur, and my stories from that time are full of inside jokes and “you just had to be there moments”, but my first Spanish road trip is an anecdote that captures the spirit of the whole time there:
First week of February - Carnival.
Carnival - the older, bigger and better cousin of the American Halloween or Mardi Gras fell on a day in early February about two weeks after I arrived. So, I did the rational thing and piled into a rented SUV with two other Americans, a Dutch girl, an Israeli, and a Spanish guy to make the 6 hour road trip to Cadiz, THE place to be for the Carnival celebrations.
We took our time getting down there, sleeping on the couch/floor of a friend of a friend’s apartment some nights, sleeping in our jeep others, and finally splurging for a hostel the night of my birthday. We drank Sangria in the car on the way down, pulled into random vineyards for lunches, made friends wherever we went. We drove happily into Cadiz just in time for the party to start. We all bought random costumes on the streets and began to make our way to the city center to join in the party.
We squeezed through the packed streets of Cadiz drinking, dancing, and toasting. When we had had our fill of cheap liquor and random costumes for the night, four of us met up and made a decision to walk back to our lodging for the night – our vehicle. It’s safe to say that a night of partying (for some of us) and a general inability to point out North (for me) inhibited our leisurely walk to our destination. None of us could quite agree on where we had left the jeep hours before, and we wandered around for quite a while trying to figure it out. Because the universe loves nothing more than a good laugh, it began to rain as our patience with each other grew thin.
So, there we were, four angry foreign exchange students wandering the streets of Cadiz, lost, wet, and until two weeks ago – strangers. As we were standing at an intersection, glaring at each other through the raindrops, at a complete standstill, laughter suddenly overcame me. Not just a smile, but uncontrollable giggles began wracking my body. I was laughing at the ridiculousness of being angry at the world while the curls from my a giant blonde afro wig kept falling over my eyes, laughing at a new friend trying to be serious while strands of his neon pink wig blew into his mouth obscuring his words, but really I was laughing because that time last month I had been sitting in a classroom, learning something mildly interesting, pretending that the upcoming night out in a small town bar was just what I needed, and stuck in a rut. But now, I was wandering the streets of some random town in Spain with people I hardly knew, away from any familiar comforts, lost, cold, wet, and…happy. Something in me was set free through that laughter, and it stayed free for the rest of the time in Spain. We finally straightened ourselves out that night and somehow made our way back to the jeep for a fitful night of wet sleep and a new experience to start the next six months off right.
I have many more stories like that, and each one still makes me laugh to this day, but pictures are worth a thousand words as well, so here’s a glimpse:
We loved with abandon the entire time we were there. There was no preconception of who we were supposed to be, what we should be doing, or where we had come from. In leaving behind everything we were... surprisingly, we could do anything we wanted.
For another example of complete freedom, check out these guys and their documentary:
Free Segment(14m): http://vimeo.com/groups/sports/videos/31241154
"A free man is someone who is true to himself. Who follows his dreams and turns them into reality. You have to put fear to one side – it will always be there, but you have to follow your path. It’s all possible if you put enough energy into it. A free man, to me, is someone who, who tries to make his dreams come true." - Tancrede Melet
These guys are light years ahead of me and amazing at what they do. For a girl who is prone to falling over while walking on solid ground, going to Spain was my personal equivalent of high lining solo for the first time – removing my harnesses and safety nets to realize how much more was possible.
So, on my 7 year anniversary of the beginning of that trip (can it really have been 7 years?!), I offer a tribute to everyone with whom I crossed paths those six months, at a time when we were all really free - free to love, free to live, free to do whatever the hell we wanted. And it was awesome.
And here’s to an attempt to recapture that energy, to allow ourselves now the freedom to accomplish those random, seemingly impossible goals that come into our heads when we let them. Here’s to the freedom to stop acting as if the ground below us will unwaveringly always be there and to begin to act how we would if the only thing supporting us was a single, one inch length of string.