The things that change you

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Maria Luisa Park, Sevilla

My suitcase is filled with 4 months worth of clothes, some chocolate bars to bring home as gifts, hiking boots and backpack, a few scarves and a turquoise sequined tapestry. Cien años de soledad and On The Road are still sitting on my nightstand, to be packed last in my carry-on. I take my last final in two and a half hours, leave Sevilla the day after tomorrow and Spain the day after that.

On my long layover in Boston, I’ll see two very dear friends, Susan and Willy, who feel like another set of parents to me. Then in Charlotte, my dad will pick me up and we’ll probably get chocolate Frosties, or maybe coffee for the ride home, and talk about what’s next, and politics, and Europe, and hitchhiking and Che Guevara and my little sister and all the things that lead to each other after a long time of not talking face to face.

And then I’ll see my sisters and my friends, and find a place to sublease for next semester, and find a job for next semester, and begin to try to figure out what comes after graduation. Some things, I know, will fall back into the same routines. There will come a time, as there did at sixteen, when driving my car is a chore instead of exciting. There will come a time when I might almost forget the taste of Spanish coffee and the chairs scraping, laughter and music of a Tapas bar. Details like this tend to hold fast forever or slowly fade away.

I still remember the Breton crepe restaurant where I played in a courtyard and learned the French word “livre” from my cousins. I remember my seven-year-old summer trip in the Pyrenees (or was I six?) and the hiking, hot nights, and cool ocean we drove to. I remember the carne and ensalada I ate at Lety’s grandma’s house in Mexico, and her sweet little cousin who went on a walk with us. But for each concrete memory, there are so many things that have faded. Names and faces and events, the little girl I befriended in the Louxembourg gardens. My first churro from a street vendor. My first Mexican dance. And I know that, inevitably, that will happen with Spain. I already struggle to walk outside and look at it through the eyes that I saw it with when I arrived. The architecture looks ordinary. The orange trees are just plants.

So then is that it? Is all you’re ever left with a few incredible memories? Maybe that’s sometimes the case, and even if it is, I think it’s absolutely worth it. To have had certain experiences, for the time that you did, has intrinsic value that can’t be negated by the failures of memory. But I think it’s more than that. I think that even when the details fade away, there are certain things whose impacts not only last but grow in magnitude and depth over time.

This adventure might be drawing to a close, but its mark on me is larger than this time period or these particular experiences. The Blue Ridge Mountains will always be home to me, but Cataluña and Mas Calamiche showed me that the Pyrenees could also be home. The connections with strangers and reconnections with family made me realize that language barriers are not barriers to humanity, and can always be overcome. I’ve come to realize that having deep roots in one place does not prohibit making a home in another, and that leaving does not invalidate the love you feel for anyone, any place, or any amount of time.

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Mallorca Airplane Window Sunset

I love airports, bus and train stations, and the peace of the act of travel. It used to overwhelm me, all the plans to be made and routes to figure out, and now it’s where I go to reflect, to be calm. Moving is the only meditation I know how to do. There’s something limitless when you find yourself in transit. Somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking so much about the place I was leaving or my destination, and began to look out the window, or over the ridge, or up at the sky, and take in everything about that in-between moment. When the past is a continent away and the future is unknown, you learn how to be present. When you’re in a place you may never be again, you soak it in with all the gusto of the first time and the last time combined.

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This trip reminded me of the value of solitude. Of mountains or oceans stretching out as far as you can see, and taking it in silently, away from the shouts and whistles and footsteps of the city. The feeling of walking to the top of a hill and being surrounded by space and meadows, with peaceful, smooth mountains on one side, and jagged snow capped peaks on the other. You learn a lot about yourself away from civilization. Crawling under fences and walking through forests with no one in sight or in earshot. You remember that the rest of it is constructed, invented, pretend. The rules we make to govern ourselves and others don’t exist out here.

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A woman in Mallorca saw my French passport, knew I was American, and asked where I lived and I told her Sevilla. She smiled and asked me if I was a nomad. Maybe that’s the big lesson of this trip. Although I’m leaving Sevilla, I don’t think I’ll miss it particularly. What I’ll miss is the constant movement, the trips to new countries and cities, the ascent of new mountains. But that’s not something I have to leave behind. Anywhere in the world, there are adventures to be had. There are mountains to climb and cities to explore back home. Meadows and wooded clearings to sleep in and places to see the stars. Any fear I might have had of these unknowns has been replaced by yearning. It’s time to leave this place, and I’m ready for the change. But the adventures, the magic, the desire and learning, the seeking and finding, that’s only just beginning.

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Reunited: a trip to London and some restless musings

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Big Ben yesterday afternoon

There are so many goodbyes involved in traveling. The people you make sure to see before you leave. The people you make sure to hug before they leave. Then there are the people you meet while you’re traveling who you may never see again. In March I wrote about the value of these brief, powerful connections that stay with you and continue to impact you years later. It’s hard and it’s also profoundly worth it, even when you know you may never see someone again. But this weekend I was reminded that with those connections often come incredible reunions and reconnections, whether they happen months or even years later.

The past few years have been full of these. I’ve been moving around a lot, with incredible people coming and going to and from my life as we each embark on our own journeys. I’m not (outwardly) overly sentimental, and I rarely cry or carry on when it’s time to say goodbye to someone or leave somewhere. The first of my big goodbyes happened when I left the US for Costa Rica at fifteen years old. That was hands down the hardest, because I was so young and scared. Then when I left Costa Rica, I was leaving incredible people who had taken me in and become my family. I got to catch up with them for an afternoon over tea in 2013, and then again when my sister Jimena got married in 2015. I went to Costa Rica for the week of her wedding and stayed in what had been my bedroom there five years before. I met family members who had been out of the country when I lived there, shared wedding cake with the grandmother, and cried as Jime and Angelica said their vows under twinkling lights on a bridge over a lake under misty rain.

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My incredible Costa Rican family

This weekend, I went on a whirlwind trip to London. I was restless, as usual, and Saturday morning I woke up at 4:30 to take a 6:55 flight to Gatwick. From there I took the train to the Farringdon station, where my cousin Milena came to pick me up. The last time I saw Milena I must have been about seven or eight years old, she would have been twelve or thirteen, and we were at her parents’ house in Paris. I remember that even then, she spoke perfect British English. I immediately felt like I was back with family, despite having gone over a decade without seeing her. Being in Europe, thousands of miles from home, it’s been even more important and wonderful for me when I’ve had the chance to catch up with relatives.

After dropping my bags off, I took a bus to the city center and met up with my high school friend James. He’s living in Manchester and about to finish a masters degree in Politics, and when I told him I was coming for the weekend, he planned a trip to see friends in London that would coincide with my visit. Our best guess was that we had last seen each other about four years ago. We walked along the South Bank, got hot cider from a stand in a market, made our way through Chinatown, and did our best to catch one another up on years of life and adventures.

Around 6:30, I took the bus back to my cousin’s neighborhood.  Another cousin of mine, Alex, happened to be in town for the night to visit his girlfriend. My childhood memories of Alex are even less clear than my childhood memories of Milena; I don’t know if we ever said more than hello to each other. I spent a lot of time with his younger brothers, and distinctly remember playing Monopoly with them and being furious that they thought I was cheating, when I was actually just winning fair and square. Alex, his girlfriend, Milena, and I went to a pub for drinks and then a diner for burgers. We talked politics, work, and school and played Jenga.

There’s this wonderful thing that I’ve found happens with these connections and reconnections. You’re halfway across the world from home, sharing food or drinks or cars with people who are essentially strangers, only you feel like you’ve known them your whole life. And sometimes maybe you distantly have, because you met as tiny kids and you share a great-grandmother, but it doesn’t feel real until you’re all back together again. And then other times it’s someone you were briefly friends with when both of your lives were very different, but you see them and you’re right back to telling inside jokes, and they remember the disastrous high school play you were both in, and even the details of who you had a crush on during the production.  And you laugh together at the people you each were six years ago, but you also appreciate the fact that those people became friends, because otherwise you wouldn’t be standing next to the Thames cracking up right now.

There’s something really special about sharing travel experiences, about being outside your comfort zone and day to day life with a friend. But I think what is even more incredible than that is when you’ve actually gone your separate ways for a while (and in the case of me and these two cousins, for more than half our lives) and then your paths cross again and not only are you as close as you ever were, but the connection is strengthened simply because it lasted. And you’ve changed and they’ve changed and not only are you close now, as the people you’ve become, but it makes you realize that you’ve been close all along.

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Walking along the canal with Milena

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this trip has really made me realize just how much people impact you, even if you don’t have much time to spend together. Sometimes you realize it before the first goodbye, and sometimes the realization comes much later. I am so grateful for all the reconnections I’ve had here in Europe. And as sad as I am that my time here is drawing to a close, I am grateful for all the incredible people I get to come home to.

Traveling Alone, Inside Spain and Out

 

Scary. Empowering. Frustrating. Incredible. The times I’ve traveled alone in foreign countries have been some of the richest and most intense experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something incredibly liberating about exploring an unknown place with no one to answer to but yourself, having no one in sight as you hike through a valley in the Serranía de Ronda, surrounded by lush farmland and mountains. It can also really suck sometimes, like when the woman in the tourism office one town over in the Alps gave bad directions, and now you’re walking in the cold rain, unsure of where you’re going, and there’s no one in sight to ask for directions in your broken French. But every time something has gone wrong, it has ended up alright, and left me knowing that it’s a situation I can handle. Traveling alone has pushed me so far out of my comfort zone that my comfort zone itself has been forced to expand and accommodate.

Last week, I went to Ronda, a gorgeous old town built on top of a mountain ridge in the Malaga Province of Andalusia. There isn’t a train that runs directly between Sevilla and Ronda, so I used the website Blablacar to find a ride share there and back. I wish we had a similar platform in the States. Users publish drives they’re planning to do (typically medium distances–this one was a little under two hours), you pay for a spot in their car, and coordinate a meeting point with them. I chose drivers who had received lots of positive feedback from previous passengers. It seemed sort of like safe, orderly hitchhiking with the help of technology.

I met my Blablacar driver last Tuesday morning at the Plaza de Armas bus station, about a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. The driver was a Spanish girl around my age; touring Andalucia with a friend. The other passengers were a quiet American guy, and a very loud Russian woman who led groups of Russian tourists around Spain. She eagerly told us historical and geographical facts that none of us knew. The American guy attempted to talk about the vegetation with the Spanish girls but a lot seemed to get lost in translation. I hadn’t had coffee yet so I chatted a bit with the drivers but tried to tune out the other passengers and just look at the landscape.

Nothing hits me quite like seeing mountains after miles and miles of flat land. It’s the same relief and exhilaration whether I’m returning to the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina or seeing a new mountain range for the first time in my life. We drove up to the ridge where the town of Ronda is situated, and got out at a park in the middle of town. I walked between an orderly row of trees to the other edge of the park, where a cliff dropped off and I stood at the edge of the descent into the gorge below (el Tajo). After a lifesaving double espresso, I got a map and directions and made my way first to the old part of town (el casco antiguo) and then down the side of the mountain.

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The view of the town of Ronda from halfway down the side of the El Tajo gorge.

The descent was steep, on a narrow path that at one point led me through some old ruins. At the bottom, I was surrounded by farmland and narrow country roads. I crossed paths with a man who reminded me a little bit of my aunt’s partner, an Italian farmer with a big laugh and smiling eyes. I asked this man if I was going the right way, and he directed me and wished me a good day. He called me “hija–daughter.” It was the first time I had ever been called “hija” and the second would be later that day, after getting help from a gas station attendant of a similar age. Maybe it’s a common colloquialism, but both times it seemed so incredibly warm and reassuring. I usually bristle when it seems like someone is trying to be parental to me (maybe there’s something about being a young woman that makes so many people, even if they’re close to your own age, or a total stranger, think that they need to tell you what to do.) This was different though; for one thing, I had asked, and for another, I was so grateful for this little thing, this word that made me feel cared about in that unique way that fathers care about their daughters–a mix of protection and encouragement. I knew that my dad would love it when I told him about this adventure, and that he would help and encourage anyone who asked him, just as these men helped me.

As I walked through the gorge, I saw Ronda rising above me to my right, and swaths of farmland interrupted by the occasional house on my left. At one point, I took a wrong turn and ascended the side of the gorge about halfway to the top before the path stopped abruptly. I didn’t mind though, the trails and views were beautiful.

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When I made it up to the top, I was at the opposite side of Ronda from where I started. Walking back through the town, I ran into the man who had given me directions. We chatted and looked out over the valley.

The Blablacar I took back to Sevilla picked me and two other young travelers up at the outskirts of town. Our driver was a middle-aged man who told us about his youthful adventures riding motorcycles and living in London. The other passengers were a woman going home from visiting her boyfriend, and a young couple who had spent a few days in the Sierra de Grazalema. We all laughed and chatted and shared stories.

The following weekend, I left Spain and flew to Geneva. I had planned this for no reason other than that the flight was cheap and I thought it would be neat to see Switzerland. Another notch on my proverbial belt of countries visited. It turns out that Geneva is really close to Sallanches, France, where one of my cousins lives. So I took a bus across the border on Friday night. He met me at the bus stop and we hitchhiked back to where he lives, one town over. We were picked up by two sweet middle-aged women who chatted with him and asked me about the US election. We ate dinner with a group of his friends–raclette, a traditional Alpine dish of melted cheese served with potatoes and ham. It was delicious, and after a few glasses of red wine I stopped being so shy and began chatting with a few of the girls who spoke Spanish. I was too unskilled to feel comfortable trying to speak French, and too hesitant that I would seem like an entitled American to speak English, but Spanish worked. The constant refrain in the back of my mind these days is “learn French.”

The next morning, my cousin took me to the train station and helped me buy a bus ticket to Chamonix (I say “helped me buy.” He did the entire thing and I just paid for it. But I reviewed a few words with him so I knew I’d be alright buying a ticket from Chamonix back to Geneva.) When I got to Chamonix,  I went to the tourism office to get a map and find out how to get to La Flagere, a cable car in the Les Praz village that takes you up to a point in the Alps where there are lots of hiking trails. It turned out being an easy path from Chamonix Centre to Les Praz, but the map I had didn’t go far enough to actually show it. I don’t think I actually ever took a wrong turn, but there did come a point when I didn’t have any idea if I was going the right way, and it was raining and cold. I saw a man standing next to his car and convinced myself that I should just ask, even if I butchered the sentence completely. “Les Praz, c’est la?” I pointed, not sure if the words were right and hoping that the inflection would get my question across. It worked, and he said yes, and I thanked him profusely. When I reached a fork in the road a few minutes later, I gave up trying to navigate and used Google maps. Why Google maps worked for me then in a tiny Alpine village, but not later in the center of Geneva, I don’t know, but I’m not complaining.

The cable car ride itself wasn’t much, but the views it took me up to were incredible. Even in the rain and fog, the Alps are unlike anything else. Standing on the side of the mountain, I understood why my mom holds such a special place in her heart for Les Houches, the little town nearby where she spent her childhood summers, and where I went a few times as a little girl. I met another solo traveler there, an American expat who was originally from Wyoming and is currently living in London. We hiked together for a bit and shared stories about where we were from and what we were doing. It inspires me to hear travelers’ stories. Each one is so unique and fascinating. Later on in Geneva, I would share a room in a hostel with a Chinese girl who goes to school in Pennsylvania and is studying in Madrid, and a Belgian girl with whom I practiced speaking French.

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Hiking in the Alps this weekend

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Me with my cousin, the last time I was in the Alps before this weekend, when I was 6

Geneva itself was a really nice city. I spent Sunday exploring, walking along the lake, eating a mini sandwich from a little bakery in the old part of town, and appreciating the sun that had finally come out from behind the clouds. If Spain is the wild younger sister with flowers in her hair and a crucifix around her neck, and France is the artist who hikes a lot and looks elegant in pastels, then I think Switzerland (or Geneva anyway) would be the eldest, a lawyer with progressive politics but personally conservative financial practices. Neither flashy nor the least bit ragged, marked by signs of conscious self-improvement. There were joggers everywhere in Geneva, and bikes lining the side of the lake. Public art displays addressed global themes and the streets were the most clearly marked I’ve seen in Europe. I will say this, though. For all that America might be messing up, our street sign game is the strongest in the world, and I will never take that for granted again.

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Bikes and boats in Geneva

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Photography display showing the faces of the world

Geneva was the second place I’ve stayed in a dormitory style room in a hostel. The other place was Peru. Both times, there were several sets of bunk beds and travelers coming and going, arriving late at night and leaving early in the morning. I love hostels. They’re cheap, clean, and inviting. Both in Geneva and in Peru, I met many other travelers from all over the world. Crossing paths like this has been one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of this type of traveling. We’re so different from one another as far as background, national origin, and even first language, but we all have this huge thing in common. We’re young, exploring the world and taking it in. It immediately allows you to identify with someone who in many ways is profoundly different from you. It brings home in a tangible way the shared humanity of people all around the world. My own worldview, since I’ve been abroad, has shifted to a more global one, and these connections reinforce that.

The most profound parts of solo traveling for me have been the empowerment I’ve felt and the shifts and expansions of the lens I use to look at the world. Situations that made me feel insecure left me feeling competent. Encounters that clashed with my preconceptions made me reexamine my own biases. But it’s not just that. I’ve seen some incredible landscapes, enjoyed talking to warm, kind, interesting people who I’ll never see again, and eaten some great food.

Madrid, Morocco, and the Mountains: What I’ve Done and What I Wish I Had Known

I’m about at the halfway point of my time here in Spain. It’s hard to believe it; sometimes I feel like I arrived yesterday and other times I feel very settled. It’s the big things that make me feel like this isn’t home yet: realizing all the important November birthdays back in the States that I’m going to miss, thinking of how much my little sister must be growing up. It’s the little things that make me feel like this is home: how strange the title of this post looks to me in English with so many capital letters, realizing that now I know certain words primarily in Spanish (truque, patrimonio, puerro…words that have nothing to do with each other).

I turned 22 this month, and it was the second birthday I’ve spent abroad. The first one, my sixteenth, I spent with my Costa Rican family. We celebrated with a cake that had my name on it; it was chocolate and vanilla checkered inside, and I remember wondering how the baker had formed such perfect little cubes from the two different batters. Then I went with my host sisters, Monse and Jimena, and Monse’s daughter Alexa, to the Limon province, where we went to the beach, ate rice and beans, and I drank a tequila sunrise at an open-air reggae bar. It was wonderful.

I didn’t want to call attention to my 22nd birthday. 22 isn’t a big one, I’m no one’s kid here, and I couldn’t help but miss my family and the mountains. My birthday fell on a Sunday, and on Saturday I took a train to Madrid. I had found some bus-accessible hikes about an hour from the city and I needed a change of pace and some cooler air.

From the Madrid Atocha train station, I needed to take the Metro Line 1 to Plaza de Castilla, a big bus station. That should have been easy enough. Instead, part of the Line 1 was down, so I took another train to Chamartin and doubled back on the metro to Plaza de Castilla. From there, the 724 Bus took me to Manzanares el Real, where I briefly toured an anticlimactic castle, and then went to the tourism office and got a map to hike to La Pedriza.

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Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains

I’m not good at following maps or directions of how to get anywhere, and I have zero intuition about where I am in space. I think I completed the La Pedriza hike by walking along a trail that began and ended with a parking lot at either end. Who really knows where I was though. It was beautiful, not particularly steep, with a narrow river running to one side and the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains rising around me. It was what I needed, but not everything I needed. It was beautiful and authentic; I didn’t see tour guides and there certainly weren’t buses to whisk you up to the pretty spots. But it had been a stressful week and I wanted the release of some sort of adrenaline. So on my way back, instead of sticking to the trail, I wandered off the trail to the rocky slopes beside it. Initially I was climbing between the rocks, heading steadily uphill. But I really wanted to climb on them.

Let’s make one thing clear. I am not a climber. I’ve been rock climbing with ropes and a harness once, with a friend who was a serious climber. It was awesome but I don’t know anything about doing it myself. Anyway, I was determined to scramble up onto these rocks somehow, and I did (more or less gracefully, probably less.) Close to the ridge line, there was a huge rock that I saw serious climbers making their way up the front of. They had gear and looked like they knew what they were doing. I approached it from the side, found a crevice at a point where the incline wasn’t so steep, and began climbing up. The crevice led me around to the front of the rock, where I knew I wouldn’t be able to go any further. But I had gone far enough. It was incredible. I spoke to one of the guys climbing who seemed mildly horrified to see me up there, barefoot with my shoes tied haphazardly onto my little backpack. He asked me why I didn’t have ropes. Without meaning to be sassy or sarcastic, I responded “because I don’t have ropes.” I assured him that I’d be able to get down just fine the way I came up, and I did (other than some scratches on my hands and forearms, and a rip right on the butt of my leggings).

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Do you see the tiny spec at the left edge of the rock? That’s not me, but that’s where I was.

I got back to Madrid that night content and exhausted. I had plans to meet up with my cousin the next day, so I spent the night in the city and wandered around the next morning. I found an outdoor market near the train station selling pastries, jewelry, scarves, leather goods, and tables and tables of used books. I see used books all over the place here. There’s a coffee shop about ten minutes from my apartment called El Viajero Sedentario whose walls are lined with secondhand books for sale.

That afternoon I met up with my cousin Balthazar, who I hadn’t seen in six or more years, and a friend of his who lives in Madrid. We ate lunch and walked around the Parque del Retiro. We talked about hiking and work and school and politics, and I was (like I always am with Europeans) impressed by how well educated they both were about American politics. I remember playing with Balthazar when we were young kids and he spoke only French and I spoke only English; I remember later on when he spoke English perfectly but my mom wouldn’t let him speak it to me, so we spoke French. This time we spoke English, and I promised myself that once I get back to the States, I would improve my French. It was the best birthday weekend I could have asked for.

The following weekend I went on a guided tour to Morocco. Traveling to Morocco was one of the aspects of studying in Spain that I was most excited about. Not speaking French or Arabic, I thought a guided trip would be the best way to do it. And for my first time going there, I guess it was. But the truth is that I don’t enjoy big group activities and I hate guided tours (the notable and enormous exception being anything outdoors with a wilderness guide. I love that stuff, it’s enabled me to raft and hike and zip line in places I could never navigate alone, and I’ve loved the trekking guides I’ve had.) I’m not going to take you through all the bus-tour bullshit, the wasted time and waiting around, and the total lack of personal agency, but if I go a second time (which I hope someday I do) I’ll do it differently.

Frustration aside, Morocco was incredible and I’m so glad to have gone. My roommate there was a French girl named Ella. We communicated best in Spanish, and I promised myself again to work on my French as soon as I get home. After arriving to our hotel and eating dinner the first night, we went right outside the hotel gate to the beach. We put our toes in the Mediterranean and then walked down the shore. As we walked, two Moroccan guys about our age approached us and said something we didn’t understand. We offered the three languages that the two of us spoke combined, to no avail. One began to do something with his hands and my first thought was vulgar and horrifying. Oh God, it was so stupid of me to leave the hotel like this. What have we gotten ourselves into. I didn’t really think they would hurt us, but they were being so forward and inappropriate… and then all of a sudden I realized that wasn’t what they were doing at all; they were miming a wedding ring, to ask if we were married. Ella happened to be wearing a regular ring on her wedding finger, which they must have taken to mean yes, we are married women. It was funny and sweet; they shook our hands politely and left us to continue their walk. We started laughing and made our way back to the hotel, where we realized one of the guards had been standing at the gate and keeping an eye on us the whole time.

The next day, we went to Tangier. I have no idea if Tangier is nice or not because we stayed on the bus except for about an hour at the beach. It was not worth how far out of our way it was. Then we continued to Chefchaouen, the blue city. It’s nestled between two mountains, and after a tour that I resented, we had time to ourselves and I ended up walking up a path on the side of one of the mountains to the mirador: a lookout spot with a panoramic view of the mountains, the valley, and the blue and white buildings.

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It was incredible and made me want to keep hiking. I thought of the trip my parents took to Morocco before I was born, where everyone thought my dad was Moroccan, my dad somehow thought people would understand him if he spoke English with a French accent, and someone offered my dad twenty camels in exchange for my mom. I hope that someday I have the opportunity to see rural Morocco, like they did. Yet again, I promised myself I’d work on my French.

The last day in Morocco was fun. We explored the market in Tetuan, my friend Allison taught me how to haggle, and I drank the tap water didn’t get sick. Like so many things here, this trip left me a little wiser, a little frustrated, and wanting more. I’m learning so much that I can’t quite articulate; about life and about travel and about myself. I’ve also learned some simple things that I really wish someone had told me beforehand, and that’s what I’ll leave you with.

International Driving Permit: This is a thing that you need to rent a car and drive in Spain. It doesn’t involve any class or test, it’s just something you pay for and get. The catch is that it’s simple to get in America from your local DMV, but a complicated mail-order process if you’re abroad. At this point, it’s not worth it to me to send away for one. But it’ll be high on my to-do list next time I go abroad.

Long Sleeves: Women wear them in Morocco. We were all wondering whether it would be respectful or whether it would seem like cultural appropriation to cover our heads. But long sleeves would have been so easy. Instead, we were told “you can wear whatever you want to Morocco! Be as Western as you want!” Legally, and even safety-wise, this seemed true. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I tried to dress in clothes that would both be as respectful as possible and prevent me from standing out. I opted for loose pants and shirts, and scarves. I think my intentions were good, but I don’t think I accomplished what I wanted. I would have if I had long sleeves.

Care Packages: Don’t even bother. I have two packages in holding at customs in Madrid right now. I went to the international office at school to ask for help, and they told me that customs is horrible, and a student last year spent an entire semester trying to get a package. It’s funny; Spain is pretty easy for people to get in and out of, and I’ve gotten regular mail without a problem, but apparently they draw the line at a box full of candy and magazines. I’m giving up on my stuff and grateful that there’s nothing big or essential in either package.

Languages: If you have the chance, learn them. I wish I hadn’t been such a brat when my mom tried to teach me French as a kid. I should have soaked it up. Instead, I’m going to get the Duolingo app when I get home and hope for some level of functional spoken French.

I’m not going to try to impart any big, symbolic life lessons. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully grasp those. But I will say this: a lot of aspects of this trip have been different than I’ve expected. Not better or worse, just different. Being out of my comfort zone has given me a lot of perspective on my own life, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for the little things in a way that I often overlook: I’m grateful for the bus that travels between Madrid and the mountains, I’m grateful to have spent an afternoon with a cousin, and I’m grateful to have seen kids grinning and jumping on a narrow, bright blue stairway on the side of a building. img_6265

Adventuring in Iberia

After four weeks in Sevilla, my weekdays have settled into somewhat of a routine. I wake up early, make coffee and drink it on the balcony if there’s time, and take the metro to and from school. Most days my afternoons are mine to do with as I please; sometimes that’s tapas with friends and sometimes it’s a coffee shop by myself. This week I walked along the river and came to a park full of people relaxing: some playing music, some slacklining, some splitting big glass bottles of Cruzcampo beer into small plastic cups. I continued past the park and found myself at the bus station.

kerouacI like bus stations. I like train stations. I like airports. They stand at the threshold of something, somewhere in between coming and going. They’re the link between wherever you are and the rest of the world. And wherever I am, I always end up restless. Don’t get me wrong; I love Sevilla. I love the cobblestones and the wine and the orange trees. But I crave the act of travel itself, not just the destination. This morning, on a train to Málaga, I was reading On the Road. “We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.” The “purity of the road” that Kerouac describes so perfectly has been a constant for me no matter what else is going on. Here, thousands of miles from home, one of my deepest comforts is travel itself.
Last Sunday, I boarded a bus full of international students and we took off for Portugal with a coordinator from the group We Love Spain. I was in a bad mood about the most mundane of first world problems. I spilled water on my MacBook and it wouldn’t charge. An ATM swallowed the most travel-friendly of my three bank cards. My iMessages were only working through my Apple ID, not my actual phone number. Gradually, coffee and conversation made me less sullen. By the time we crossed the line into Portugal (no checkpoint, no border control, just Schengen area freedom) I was happy. We stopped at a gas station and I bought chocolate milk, unabashedly addressing the cashier in Spanish, not even realizing that I wasn’t in Spain anymore. But when we got to Praia de São Rafael, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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The view from the cliffs

Cliffs the colors of stratified sand framed a narrow cove of water like turquoise glass. Rocks jutted up from the clear water forming arches and monuments. A breeze brushed over us and the water looked deceptively warm. I tucked my towel and backpack in the crevice of a tall rock and took off for the water. It was the Atlantic, but felt colder than it had three weeks before at the North Carolina Outer Banks. After getting over the initial shock of diving under, I took off swimming for the caves that were supposedly hidden within the protruding rocks. Sure enough, half in and half out of the water was a place to go inside. The rocks were rough on our hands and feet as we climbed from chamber to chamber within the caves. Soon, six of us crowded onto the tiny “beach” within the furthest cave. We were inside what felt like a tower, with sand under our feet and little waves bubbling up from an opening in the rock just below the one that we climbed in. We stood at the bottom of a stone cylinder with no ceiling, looking up at the rich sky above us, and we tried to climb the rock walls that encircled us. It was fun but no one made it to the top.

Instead, we went back out and began climbing the rocks from the outside. I’ve never liked to accept help when I’m trying to climb up something. It’s not about pride; when I was young I learned that if you want to get yourself down safely, you should get yourself up on your own. But my arms just weren’t quite long enough to reach the handhold that would let me get up to the ledge I wanted to jump from. So I accepted some help up, reasoning that since I was going to jump down anyway, it wouldn’t be any less safe. To get to a good jumping spot, one that went straight down to deep water with no rocks, I lay down on my back and slid beneath an overhang. Lying on my back, I had a few inches of rock to my left, and then the drop down to the water, and a few inches of space above me, then more rock. But the jump made the scratches on my back and arms and the cuts on my knees and elbows worth it.

srafaelAfter a nap, I explored the cliffs above the beach and again had my breath taken away by how rugged and beautiful it was. I’m happy to have pictures, but they don’t come close to doing this trip justice.  Even more than than the cool clarity of the water, the warmth of the sun, and the softness of the sand, I’m grateful for the vitality of the adrenaline from climbing and jumping, and for the rejuvination this trip provided me.  It was staggering, beautiful, and great in a way that I don’t think a man-made structure will ever be. Being here made me feel both very small and very whole.

Another week of routine went by. Coffee, metro, school, replacement bank card on its way, laptop charges only when it feels like it. More exploring within the city. I’ve now found two bookstores: One small coffee shop whose walls are lined with bookshelves filled with used books for sale, and one big boxy store offering books, electronics, office supplies and more. The former introduced me to a mystery novel translated to English from Icelandic, the latter to Jack Kerouac. I was happy with my books and happy to be finding more unknowns here in Sevilla. But by the end of the week I needed a window seat on a bus. I needed mountains and gorges and the liminal moments in between here and there.

This morning I woke up several hours before dawn. (That sounds dramatic. Dawn happens late here. I woke up at six, which is early, but not really that early.) I took the metro to the stop nearest the train station, walked about fifteen minutes, printed my ticket, and made my way to a bus bound for El Chorro. I settled into my seat, put in my headphones, opened my book, and we were off. It was somewhere between eight and nine before dawn actually happened. I was wide awake and excited. Somewhere along the way, the flat ground turned to steep mountains. The train drove through a ravine and I saw a walkway suspended on the side of the mountains. I knew in a few hours I would be on that walkway. I smiled and underlined particularly moving lines in my book. I felt vaguely like what I was doing had something to do with what Sal Paradise was doing. I ignored that I was carrying a hundred euros cash, a debit card, two passports, two phones, a driver’s license, hand sanitizer, protein bars and an outlet adapter in order to let myself feel that way.

At the El Chorro station, I had time for a cafe con leche before I got on the bus to Ardales, where I would begin the Caminito del Rey, a hike I had been dying to do since I first found out about it. Apparently it used to be incredibly dangerous. People died doing it. I think now they might be overcompensating just a bit; the path is refurbished with wooden walkways, steel wire fences, and videocameras. I’m a big fan of videocameras in places like metros and parking garages but in this case they just creeped me out. They made us wear hard hats.

caminito2The walk itself was stunning. On one side, the mountain rose straight up and down. On the other, water smooth and bright like polished jade snaked through the gorge. It was an easy trek, 7 or 8 km and pretty flat. As I took it in I imagined what it must have been like before the 21st century safety standards were implemented. I thought about what those mountains would be like for serious climbers. I thought about myself and my cousin hiking the Inca Trail ten months ago, which was neither as dangerous as this would have been pre-renovations, nor nearly as safe as it is now. I wished this were slightly less accessible, so I could have felt like I earned the views and the altitude.

When I got to the end of the Caminito, I was back close to the El Chorro train station. I went to a nearby restaurant and sat on a terrace that looked out over the river. I bought the most expensive meal of my whole trip so far: cured pork wrapped in pork loin and a glass of wine. I couldn’t even eat half of the pork but I did drink all the wine. I read my book as I waited and started thinking about what trip would come next. By checking this adventure off my bucket list I had reminded myself to find more mountains to climb. Now I’m back at my apartment, getting ready to curl up in bed and not set an alarm for tomorrow morning. Maybe between coffee, books, food and wine this weekend I’ll figure out where I’m going to go next.

 

 

Paris, Language, and Culture

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Juliette and Eleanor, who reminded me that you don’t always need language.

The first time I went to France I was a baby. I don’t remember it, but there are pictures of me as a chunky baby sitting on a cobblestone patio in the Pyrenees, and later there are pictures of me, still fat and very naked, as a toddler with a bad haircut in my mom’s arms in the Alps. Although my childhood memories of France are blurred and faded, they were formative and have influenced me throughout my life. Along with the smells and sounds that are so intimately linked to memory is the awareness of a language barrier, and the triumph in overcoming it, even for just a moment.

When I was eleven, I spent a week or so with my cousins who lived in Brittany. They promised my mom not to speak English with me, and only broke the promise when I got sick and needed English to explain that I had a sore throat. In the meantime, I played and swam and ate and lived in French. I never became fluent, but I began to understand what was happening around me, and I was all the more gratified when I successfully played a game or bought a piece of candy in French.

Spanish was different. I was older, and made a conscious effort to learn the language. I dedicated myself to Spanish classes in a way that I had never cared in school before. I looked up verb conjugations in tenses we hadn’t learned yet. I constantly asked my friend Lety how she, a native speaker, would express something in Spanish. I traveled and I tried and I lived with a host family in Costa Rica who spoke only Spanish with me, although my two host sisters were proficient in English. Lety’s parents, knowing how badly I wanted to learn, began to address me in Spanish (and, like their children, I often responded in English). I grew comfortable with Spanish; fluent if not bilingual. And I came to Spain this fall and continued feeling comfortable with the language; even when I didn’t know a specific word I was able to communicate.

Then last weekend I went to Paris again. It was my first time in France in four years, and I was right back to the elementary level of the language that I never moved past as a kid. The difference is that this time I had to navigate the metro, the airport, and a hotel without my family’s help. My hotel was near the Moulin Rouge, and walking to the metro I passed through the historic prostitution district. Neon lights advertising sex shops and lap dances glared down at me; this was a side of Paris I’d never seen.

It was a relief to get to my cousin Claire’s house the next day. She speaks English, and though I hadn’t seen her in ten years or more, she greeted me with tremendous warmth and generosity and I felt immediately at home. She was babysitting the grandchildren of her best friend–two sweet girls, four and seven years old. Even the four-year-old’s proficiency in French surpassed mine by far, but we shared crepes and held hands as we walked in the city, and it reminded me of the friendships I forged so easily as a kid with my cousins, despite our inability to communicate verbally.

This little trip both reminded me of how possible it is to overcome language barriers with no tool other than basic human warmth, and threw into sharp relief all the comfort and ease that speaking Spanish provides me here in Spain. Some things are universal, they don’t require language or a shared cultural context. But many things do. Last night I went to the movies and saw Bridget Jones’s Baby. I thought it would be in English with Spanish subtitles, but it was dubbed in Spanish instead. I focused at the beginning, honing in on what they were saying and trying not to get messed up when the actors’ mouths still moved to form English words. By the end of the movie I had forgotten it was in Spanish; I was just watching and laughing and unfortunately hoping that the wrong guy would end up being the baby daddy. I think though that this may have been easier for me to understand because although the words were in Spanish, everything else about the movie was made for and by English speakers in an English/American context.

Language gives you access: to culture, to countries, to friends and to conversations. Those in turn enrich your understanding of the world. But I believe that language does more than that. It gives you a basic framework for labeling the world around you and organizing your thoughts. Certain cultures have named and distinguished concepts that cannot be expressed with exactitude in others. The connotations differ to reflect the different meanings and values assigned to the same object in different languages. As an American student, my major is different structurally than a Spanish student’s carrera. Maybe you’ll let your husband be friends with anyone, but not with that cualquiera. 

I’ve often found that bilingual people (a group that I might belong to someday, but not yet) seem especially able to step back from the primary lens through which they view the world and accept that the same symbol does not always have the same meaning. The same rules don’t always apply. Lety and I have talked about this a lot, sometimes analytically but mostly anecdotally.  She recently told me that she could imagine other Mexicans in our hometown, upon learning that she’s living with her boyfriend, immediately thinking “Lety’s married!” She laughed and said “but I’m not! I’m just living with him!” We didn’t delve further into the different understandings of marriage, common law marriage, “living in sin” and the like that exist in the part of Mexico where her family is from, the Mexican-American community in rural WNC, the white American community in WNC, etc, etc, because we didn’t have to. We were both familiar with the variation in those constructs and with each other’s personal beliefs about them. While we were in Mexico together a few years ago, we saw both a traditional church wedding, and witnessed the beginning of a common law marriage that has since been sanctified in church. I say “common law marriage” here but Lety and I talked about the difference between “pedida” and “robada” (and living with your boyfriend in an American context is neither of the above). That conversation hinged not only on each of us understanding the same set of cultural rules and definitions, but upon each of us understanding two sets of cultural rules and definitions about the same thing–and how those rules interact. The rules are invisible and fluid, but pivotal to our understanding of so much.

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Throwback to Mexico, New Years 2014, where Lety and her extended family welcomed me and taught me so much, without even trying.

Because of those invisible and fluid rules, I am (and always have been) comfortable with a kiss on the cheek from a grown man I just met–so long as I’m in Europe. Here it’s a greeting, no more and no less. Do that to me back in North Carolina? No way, man.

Right now I’m in limbo here; some of my interactions are limited to the innate understanding of shared humanity. Whatever that is that allows children to play together without exchanging a word, before the explicit, implicit, systematic and setting-specific norms come in to play and tell us how to behave. Other things I do here have begun to fall into the Spanish context and understanding of life.  Maybe, on some level, we need more opportunities to exist for a moment without culture and all the roles and constructs it places upon us. A reminder that we’re the same. But I believe that it’s equally important to engage with culture and language; and to do so critically and to do so with languages and cultures that fall outside our primary lens. It’s funny-and also not-that in order to get to a place of understanding within another language/culture/world, we must often pass first through the child-like of ignorance, both of the words around us and of their larger schematic organization within a certain value system.