Peripheral Figures

Ross in the middle 🙂

I never know how to respond when a friend asks me what it’s like to study abroad. Is it cool? Is it different? Is it life-changing? I mean, often, yes, and maybe, but the question doesn’t include either my particular location or me. I can’t possibly speak to everywhere, to the vast expanses of the great abroad, and I’m not even sure that I can speak for myself yet about what it’s like to study in Spain. More time needs to pass. More reflection needs to happen. And I need to clarify my understanding of my poor friend’s innocent question. For example, how much does the person want to know? A word, a phrase, a novel?
In the interim, I’ll settle for a blog. I could answer the question in so many ways, none of which would do the question justice, and many of which would probably provoke more questions. “Studying abroad,” I could start, “is a lot like studying at home, only with less studying.” That would, however, be an outright lie. At least in my case.
“Studying abroad,” I could begin again, “is much like studying at home, only six hours ahead of schedule.” That would be utterly true, hopefully funny, and entirely devoid of substance.
“Studying abroad,” I could venture to say, and then I would pause. “What?”, my friend would respond. Maybe s/he’d type the message from the edge of a hard, wooden seat in Tisch Library. Maybe s/he’d send it from the bouncing seat of a toasty Joey shuttle. Or maybe, just maybe, s/he’d reply from somewhere new. Somewhere that I don’t know. Somewhere that I can’t imagine.
I tried not to imagine Madrid before I got here, and really, how can I capture the essence of studying abroad? It’s cool; it’s different, and it transplanted me from Medford to Madrid. But it’s still my life. I study. I attend classes. I work out, eat meals with friends, resent spending money. This semester, the money just comes in a foreign currency, and my school friends reach me via WhatsApp.
The friends still reach me, though. So does my family. The core fixtures of my life remain in place, just as I hope they always will. The greatest changes seem to come around the periphery. Different dudes grunt at the gym. It’s been a while since I’ve asked Dianne at Dewick Dining Hall for more soup. On my way to class, I don’t pass Mark, the friendly old dude with the elastic hairband and the massive dogs. Instead, on my way to class, I stand in the corner of a Metro car. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the same purple-haired woman with the jaunty beret gets on at Tirso de Molina, the stop after mine. She normally takes a seat.
When I reach the building in which I have my classes, a short-haired, stocky woman beams at me and says hi from behind the reception desk. She says hi after I say hi; we learned early on this semester that greeting door-people is a common courtesy. (For the record, not every student from an American university receives that same message. There’s another university program with its headquarters in the building, and its students stream past the affronted door-people without so much as a glance.)
The students from the-university-that-must-not-be-named speak in loud, unabashed English (not that we’re always guiltless of the same charge), which puts them in the same category as two more students from ‘Merican universities whom I frequently see at the gym. I haven’t talked with them, but I have said “Hasta luego” on a regular basis to the burly African man in the black winter coat who sells packs of tissues outside the gym’s front doors. At this point in our cursory acquaintanceship, we nod at each other in true recognition.
Yesterday afternoon, after leaving the gym, I crossed the street in confident style. The walk sign had just started to blink and beep, so I knew that I had time to spare. By the time of the eleventh beep, I had long since mounted the sidewalk.
Surprisingly, I find myself missing the insistent “Walk sign is on” message that defines the chaotic intersection between College- and Boston Avenue at Tufts. Unsurprisingly, I miss Tufts. But I am glad that I chose to study abroad. With Tufts students. And Skidmore students. And two Smith students, and a Swarthmore student. Because yes, studying abroad is different, and I can probably speak for everyone everywhere when I say that. And yes, studying abroad has altered many elements of my daily life. But really, what has it changed? The faces, fine, but not the friendly feeling.

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