The day I arrived in Barcelona was also the day of the Barcelona vs Madrid game. Talk about perfect timing. My roommates and I traded the grey skies of Brussels for the deep blue ones of Spain last week for our fall break. When we hopped off of our bus and into the heart of Barcelona, flags were already adorning every balcony and red and blue jerseys were as abundant as the sunshine.
We asked the very kind Dutch girl at the front desk of our hostel where we could go to watch the game with some locals (because who wants to watch a Spanish football game at the Irish pub across the street?) and she pointed us in the direction of a local sports bar hidden within the winding cobbled footpaths of old-town Barcelona. In the daytime this little sports bar is completely unnoticeable, but that night it was overflowing into the nearby streets with screaming fans holding a euro beer in one hand and a plate of patatas bravas in the other. Wearing my newly purchased Barcelona scarf, I know I blended in just seamlessly. Eh, but I at least picked up pretty quickly that the best way to make friends was to yell with gusto whenever you deemed appropriate, even during commercial breaks. By the end of it, I was just as loud as any old local there.
About halfway through the game some guys at the end of the bar started a chant that soon engulfed the bar, and I had this grand idea of: hey, enjoying this moment in the moment isn’t enough so wait let me take a video and Instagram it and then everyone can see I’m in Spain and then I’ll be even cooler than those chant-starter guys down there. So, I reached into my purse for my iPhone only to find that it was blazing hot. I’m talking Spanish hot-chocolate (which is really more like fudge and is so great) level hot. Needless to say, my phone was fried.
When I got back to my hostel later that night – after Barci had a stellar victory – and discovered my phone was out of commission indefinitely, I was rather shocked by the huge wave of disappointment I felt. Not disappointment that my phone keeled over for no apparent reason (though that’s frustrating), but rather a sense of loss for all that I wouldn’t be able to share. I wouldn’t be able to Instagram that view from the hilltop fort that stands high over Barcelona, or tweet about my first authentic pan of paella or Facetime my parents about all my adventures. Heaven forbid, I would actually have to disconnect from that continent across the ocean. I would have to enjoy the moment rather than think about how I can best socially construct the moment. I would have to care about the experience itself rather than care about what other people think of my experience.
I have been wildly convicted while studying abroad of this crushing desire I have to construct who I am – or rather – who I appear to be and what this experience appears to be. After all, if you look at my Instagram feed or Facebook profile, you’ll find a girl fortunate enough to spend a semester in Europe, who is capitalizing on all these adventures and loving every moment of it. You’ll find that because that is what I want you to see. And it’s not very truthful.
Because I haven’t capitalized on this experience like I know that I want to – I’ve let homesickness and weariness be excuses to plant myself behind my computer screen rather than dive into these European cities I know I could love. I read an article a few weeks back by a great NYT columnist with the title, “Traveling Without Seeing.” It should be required reading for just about anyone who has the desire to travel but especially folks planning on living/studying abroad in the future.
The author, who was in Shanghai at the time, talked about how he had to force himself to close his laptop and actually venture into the city. My favorite excerpt:
“But I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon.
I’m not talking about the chain hotels or chain restaurants that we’ve long had and that somehow manage to be identical from time zone to time zone, language to language: carbon-copy refuges for unadventurous souls and stomachs.
I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, “the cloud” and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.” – Frank Bruni, “Traveling Without Seeing.”
I’m haunted by how much time, effort and energy I’ve spent tailoring a reality of my own creation while abroad. And this past week was a phenomenal opportunity to do something about it rather than just talk about it. Without social media or connection to anyone outside of stunning Gaudi creations and overwhelming tapas bars, I finally felt like I was able to really feel the cities of Barcelona and Madrid. The extra time I had was spent getting lost in giant markets, accidentally walking into beautiful churches in time for 7 o’clock mass, bonding with bakers over churros and exploring the cities for myself by night. It was spent reflecting over what museums – like the Picasso museum in Barcelona and the Prado in Madrid – were teaching me through their collections. It was spent finding the little things – like a 125-year-old creamery in the heart of Barcelona with the best flan in the world – that make you truly fall in love with where your feet are. It wasn’t spent taking ten minutes to pick out the perfect Instagram filter.
The truth is – this experience of living abroad is really changing who I am and how I think of myself and the world I’m in. In just one week, Spain taught me how to fill my life with more kindness, more silliness, more curiosity. It taught me that documenting my travel is infinitely more rewarding from behind my trusty Canon or notebook rather than from behind constructing the next social media post.
Spain showed me that I can, in fact, travel with sight if I only just let go of trying to manufacture the moment and simply appreciate it for what it is – a beautiful, quickly fading step in a winding journey.