The first time I came to Europe, I was on tour with my college’s choir to Spain. It is tradition for the Knox College choir to go to Spain once every four years and put on performances all over the Catalonia region. At that time, I truly thought I may never come back to Barcelona, to Spain or maybe I would never see the European continent again. I feel very lucky that almost exactly 10 years later, I now call Barcelona home (temporarily).
My attitude back then reflects a more general American attitude towards travel: it is difficult, it is expensive, it takes too much time, and once you do it, it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But travel and expat life are only these things because we say they are, not because they MUST be that way. If I could tell my 2003-self in Barcelona that by 2013, I will have studied and lived in Germany, Israel and Hungary and traveled all over Europe, I probably would have either laughed or asked my future self how I came into so much money. Travel doesn’t have to be nearly as expensive as most Americans assume, especially if you’re willing to give up on some luxuries. (This post on traveling for 12 consecutive years puts this into perspective). And living abroad is probably less expensive than living in the US, especially if you’re not paying taxes and if you don’t have a car. Truth be told, all it takes is the will. I found the will in 2007 to go abroad and I haven’t looked back.
At the same time, however, I’ve become a bit spoiled. When I first moved abroad, after doing lots of research, I was prepared to live cheaply and to sacrifice some of the things I had taken for granted in the US. I was armed with my backpacker’s pack and came with the attitude that I really need is a roof over my head and an internet connection. Over time, I moved to Berlin and my choice of apartments got more and more expensive and with more and more perks. I got spoiled with the low Berlin rent and the luxuries I could afford with my rather generous PhD fellowship and the low cost of living.
Moving to Spain has reminded me what it is like to be that “fresh off the boat” international student with little to no money, and having to sacrifice a bit on the creature comforts. My apartment in Barcelona is a mere 25 square meters (270 square feet). It has no stove, which I’ve come to realize is rather common in Spain. There is one pot and one pan provided in the kitchen. The hot water runs out after 10 minutes in the shower. It is located in a popular party district which means I can hear just about every motorcycle and passerby that travels down the narrow street. There is an internet connection but it has only really worked one day out of the two weeks I’ve been here, and my Spanish is not good enough to ask the maintenance man of the building if he can fix the WiFi repeater. These are all somewhat reminiscent of my first days in Germany, trying to find a hotel where I was supposed to meet with fellow students with my backpack and heavy suitcase and doing my best to piece together a sentence in German from my college courses several years previously. Waiting for weeks for someone to install internet and not understanding the bureaucracy involved. Coming home to a very minimalist apartment and bribing one of the few locals with a car to take me to Ikea. Constantly feeling a little silly and stupid and even infantile because of the inability to communicate and not understanding basic daily routines. Yesterday I wondered around a very open public square for an embarrassing amount of time, my hands full of bags of trash and recycling, first trying to locate the public trash bins and second to try and distinguish based on my poor Spanish and non-existent Catalan what bin was for what.
This is what it is like the first few days and even weeks of studying abroad. The learning curve for the most basic routines is steep. The waiting time for things you normally take for granted is long. The creature comforts at first are few and far between. Doubt creeps in and you ask yourself, “why the heck am I here again?”
The answer to that question is not always immediately clear. All I know is that I remember standing on the main platform of Park Guell in 2003 looking out over the amazing and completely strange architecture of Gaudi as it faded into the waters of the Mediterranean and thinking I may never see this sight again. Returning to that spot again after so many years and with such a different perspective on myself and my life has been certainly worth the small apartments, the lack of kitchen stoves, and the strange looks from locals as I try to figure out how to recycle plastic bottles.