Friday, August 7, 2015

Travel Abroad: Loneliness and Togetherness

{Madrid at dusk}

Coming to Spain has made me realize how sometimes travel can make you feel quite lonely. You go off into the world and have experiences and interactions and thoughts that educate and change youto whatever degree, big or smalland the people from the places you call home won't always understand what you've learned or how you feel. But at the same time, one of the most incredible things about traveling is connecting with absolute strangers. Whether its new au pair friends I've made, or tourists admiring the same view, or even people with whom I've shared a Blablacar (people whose names I didn't even know!), there are so many moments in which I have felt that I've learned something valuable from someone or that someone new has understood me exactly and it's fantastic.

Last weekend I used Blablacar, an amazing car-share program that D.C. needs to start using ASAP. My ride into Valencia went smoothly; all the people were kind and we spoke a bit about the differences between Madrid and America. Javier, the owner of the car, was the only one who had been to America. A few years ago, he visited New York and absolutely hated it, saying that everything was boring compared to Madrid, that the food wasn't good and there wasn't enough life in the city. And while I'm not the biggest fan of New York City, I'm pretty sure we can all agree that's a load of crap. 

On the way back to Madrid though, I had an unexpectedly fantastic time. Beforehand, I was a bit nervous about the fact that I was going to be the only girl and only American in a car with three other older men, not knowing if they spoke any English or what to expect of the four hours together. But just minutes into our ride we had begun talking in a way that wasn't just forced small-talk. Alfonso was from Spain, but had lived on the American West Coast for a couple months. We alternated between Spanish and English, bonding over loving California and needing to revisit the Grand Canyon. I told him a bit about what college life in America is like and he told me how he plans to visit the East Coast next time. The other two guysa lawyer from the Dominican Republic and a systems analyst from Colombiaand I then talked about loving Game of Thrones and shared theories on who was going to die soon (Sansa, let's hope) and who would survive. 

I also met another person from Madrid this week who had been to the West Coast. He had liked his visit to the States a lot, but told me he found that Americans differ from Spaniards in that they live their lives being more lonely and helpless, as being desamparados. 

It's obvious to me how incredibly open people are here in Spain; in every city I've been to, everyone has been welcoming, gracious, and kind. They're all patient with my limited Spanish-speaking abilities and don't treat me with the sort of anti-American prejudice that I've experienced in a lot of other European countries. So it's not impossible to see why a Spaniard would classify Americans as desamparados, lonely and alone in an almost helpless way. The word carries a deep, heavy sadness that Google translate doesn't fully explain, but I can see how this makes sense; as Americans we tend to do our own things. We pride ourselves in our individualism, our personal success stories. And we should. If you know our nation's history and culture, it makes sense. But after coming here you sort of realize what you lose when you become so focused on the selfa sense of communal well-being, a sort of belonging, and the feeling that you can count on each other and trust one another in a way you wouldn't always do in Americaespecially not in a big city, especially not in the North.

And in a way, travel sort of counteracts this American sense of being desamparados. You meet people and connect with absolute strangers whose lives are so different from your own and you bond over things as simple as Game of Thrones or whatever and it's just so incredibly amazing to experience that sense of universality, of belonging. To sit in a car with three total strangers, people you wouldn't have ever met had you not made the decision to go to Spain, to visit Valencia that weekend, to take that exact Blablacar back. It's serendipity, but not in some overwhelming, in-your-face kind of way; instead, it's a simple reminder to appreciate the little things in life, the small moments, and the idea of belonging to a world and community bigger than you and your sense of self.

And of course, it's a reminder to keep traveling; you wouldn't have met these people and had this conservation and this moment of real happiness where you're just laughing and genuinely grateful for the moment and driving past sunflower fields and an old Alicia Keys song that you're embarrassed to say you like is playing on the radio and there's not one thing about this moment you would change. And as painfully cliche as it sounds, this is really living you know? Putting yourself out there in these situations where you just have these serendipitous moments of connecting with total strangers. Dancing lessons from God, man.

For a while, I had been feeling like something was missing. I just felt like I needed more or wanted more or worseexpected more. I don't know exactly what changed this weekend or what void was filled but I don't feel that way anymore. I'm satisfied and happy and grateful and don't want to leave.

But with that being said, it's important to acknowledge that in a sense, travel can be quite isolating as well.  At first, you're just getting to know new people and learning to find your way, and it's sort of like the loneliness of your freshman year of college; you've made all these friends but they're still new and you aren't as close to them as your friends from home. And at the same time, your old friends don't know this new life you have and all the things that make it up, while your new friends do. And all of these new experiences and people sort of form a barrier between you and the friends and family you have back home since they just don't know this whole side of your life yet. Because when you go on a trip like this, whether you're studying abroad or becoming an au pair or simply moving to another city in another country for a couple months, it can be a bit isolating. Because ultimately you're the only one that's part of those two worlds, the one who has been formed by both of them and has been changed by the experience. 

The thing is, in my case I've always had Alana. We've been friends since our sophomore year of high school, so she knew me before GW and D.C., so she knows me in relation to that one world, but at the same time, she's met all my friends at GW, too. She knows where I buy my groceries and where I go out with friends and what late-night monumenting is like. She's my bridge between my two worlds. 

This time I don't have a bridge, but I'm nothing but grateful for it. I have all these moments and people and places that are my own. Of course there are millions of people who have walked in the same streets I have, who know the strangers I've befriended much better than I do. And I even have friends who have had similar experiences to what my summer has been all about. But at the end of the day, I'm part of a world that so many of my friends don't know about and I'm okay with it. Because even though you are sometimes alone, it doesn't mean you are desamparada. 

~ V

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