CASSIDY OLSEN- Growing up in New Jersey, I was instilled with both a reverence of New York City, where things actually happened, and a weirdly playful but hurtful self-deprecation in response to all the cultural put-downs. Personal class issues aside, saying, “You’re right, we’re awful!” when anyone called my home state trash was kind of sad after a while. My mother was prouder of her New Jersey roots, and always liked to say, “I love coming to New York City, but I also love leaving it, you know?” Did I know? New York seemed pretty great. But I guess she was right, it never felt like home.
When I first arrived in Madrid, it felt like my new-New York. Everyone was well dressed and doing real things and living their big city lives, and I was but a distant tourist trying to get a hang of the metro and learn enough names of neighborhoods to feel like a regular visitor, if not a local. Being completely unfamiliar with European cities, I immediately started to draw comparisons with the American cities with which I’m acquainted: New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston. Fuencarral is the Newbury Street, Sol a less disgusting Times Square, Lavapiés and Chueca versions of Greenwich Village without the brownstones. As much I was enjoying these similarities, the large cultural differences and unfamiliar terrain had me thinking back to what my mom used to say. Will I love leaving more than arriving?
I passed my first month in Spain without leaving the country, and only occasionally traveling outside Madrid. With the arrival of October came my first European travel experiences: first to Dublin and central Ireland for my boyfriend’s birthday, and next to Lisbon with a huge group of other students in the program. I was immensely excited for the former and nervous about the latter, but both ended up being wonderful, eye-opening trips full of the kind of memories they advertise on study abroad pamphlets, and some that they don’t.
I nearly missed my flight to Ireland after poorly navigating the crowded Madrid-Barajas airport, but upon arrival I was overjoyed, and then immediately ridden with guilty about how at home I felt. It was an unfamiliar country with a polar opposite climate from Madrid, but speaking English with adults again already made me more comfortable than I had been feeling for most of my time in Spain. In Lisbon, the streets and restaurants felt much more Spanish than American, but we were once again speaking English in public and having experiences beyond the daily life of madrileños. The beach especially reminded me so much of home, which I missed especially in those few days. As I am wont to do, I alternated between joy and guilt at my response to my surroundings.
Something funny happened upon my arrival back in Madrid-Barajas the Monday I returned from Dublin. With my stuffed carry-on duffle bag and oversized purse in tow, while speeding through the airport on my way to the metro, I noticed a couple standing on the people-mover conveyor belt. Not walking, just standing, going more slowly than the people walking by on the regular floor. “Why are people STANDING on the people-mover in an airport?!” I thought to myself, because I am irritable and from New Jersey. And then I realized it was because I was back in Madrid, and I smiled. That is the way of life in Spain, and it’s now something I’m familiar with and more comfortable engaging in. So, I hopped on behind them, placed my bags on the belt and waited for the metro to come to me.
I’ve come to understand that it’s okay to still feel uncomfortable at times in Madrid, because that is exactly why I decided to study abroad: to challenge myself and break out of my comfort zone. It’s also okay to want to leave, but coming back and realizing that Madrid feels like a new place where I belong has been extremely gratifying. It’s still a challenge every day in many ways, and there are obvious reasons places like Dublin (full of people who look and talk like me, with names that sound like mine) are easier for me to adapt to. But Dublin still isn’t mine. Madrid was my new-New York, but it’s starting to feel more like Boston, Somerville or Toms River, the places I feel like a real local and call my home.