I don’t know if this makes sense. It’s hard to find the words when you can’t find the feelings yet. What I do have, for sure, is gratitude, safety, and love. Have these scattered thoughts, in the meantime 🙂
When I was sixteen, sitting in a lecture during my college tour at Saint Louis University, the speaker started talking about her experiences studying abroad at the Madrid campus. I leaned over to my parents and told them that I was going to do that. I texted all of my friends and told them that I was going to do that. I made an internal promise to myself that that was not an opportunity I would pass up.
I don’t know if anyone took me seriously. I don’t know if I even took myself seriously. Through everything that happened to me, I kept this dream afloat, this dream of starting over somewhere where I was nameless. Where the streets tasted like sugar instead of sin. Where I could finally come to life after years of feeling like I was steadily decomposing.
Every moment of my life led up to the one where I stepped foot on that plane. Every. Moment. I had fought tooth and nail to be able to go abroad. I had maintained steady anorexia recovery for a year. Endured gut-wrenching EMDR therapy sessions to stabilize my PTSD. Made peace with my fresh grief enough to find a way to leave my family and my childhood home. It was not easy. It was years of work and planning and stress and tears. It was the most calculated risk that I have ever taken, and even then, there were some stones left unturned.
But I acted like I believed in myself for the first time, all to chase a dream that I had developed when I was still just a child. And I left.
And oh, how worthwhile those two months made it all.
You’ve followed my journey. You’ve seen me through every up. Every down. Every cumulative experience that made my smile more real than it has ever been. Never in my life have I been as happy as I was abroad. I was genuinely so in love with being alive. Even the simplest of moments–sitting in a coffee shop, listening to the chaos below my bedroom window every night (because Madrid is really the city that never sleeps), eating dinner with the strangers who quickly became my family–were something to treasure.
I guess that I expected to be able to hold onto them for much longer than I did.
It all happened so quickly. Italy study abroad programs got sent home weeks before ours. But that was in Italy. And we were in Spain. And we were untouchable (aren’t we all, in our heads?).
The nagging fear grew worse every day, but we tried and tried to convince each other that we would be okay. Student Life came into our classrooms and cancelled our school trips. We got emails from the campus that they were installing new hand sanitizer dispensers. Every professor had a different opinion: “you’ll be home by next week,” “there’s no way they’d send you home,” “Madrid is safe.”
“Madrid is safe.”
“Madrid is safe.”
“Madrid is safe.”
My host mom said it and the administrators said it and our home campuses said it. So we said it. We danced in bars until the sun came up, like we always did. We walked to school through the scent of churros frying in the streets, like we always did. We planned trips like we would be there for two more months, like we always did. Because Madrid was home. And Madrid was safe.
And then it just wasn’t anymore.
I watched the numbers rise through my iPhone screen, refreshed travel.gov and the CDC webpage at least five times every hour. Somehow, something bad was seeping into the one good thing that I had. The tensions ran high. The city held its breath. We had wished away the worst, and wishing never works.
I was on the London Tube when I heard the news that Spain was shutting down all schools for two weeks. At the time, I thought that it was only public schools. An hour later, I learned that even my private institution would be closing. Suddenly, it was real.
But I was supposed to return, pack my bags, and head to Portugal. And the next week, I was off to Switzerland. And in between were friends’ birthdays, and picnics in the park, and sunrise runs, and tortilla-patata-dinners in our cozy apartment. I held out hope. I told everybody on the phone that I was fine. It was fine. It was just two weeks of online classes. Madrid is safe.
Madrid is safe.
Madrid is safe.
Madrid is safe.
I didn’t believe it anymore.
So my first morning back from my trip to England, when I woke to hundreds of messages and news alerts stating that Trump was closing the borders, I didn’t cry. I didn’t break. My mom told me that she had booked me a plane ticket home, leaving the next morning. And I said okay.
In a split second, the dress that I had bought to wear in Porto didn’t matter anymore. The money we had spent on a rental car in Switzerland was irrelevant. I wasn’t thinking about losing out on my dream trip to Greece. Or forfeiting the opportunity to show my family around the city that I loved more than life. Or how that night would be my last with my best friends, in my favorite place in the goddamn world, in the happiest chapter of my life that I could ever dream to write.
I was thinking about getting back safely to my mom and my sister. I was thinking about getting all of my friends home safely, too. And suddenly that was it. The world condensed again, from cities and countries and oceans, to people.
That’s how I know that I did it right.
When I was sixteen years old, sitting in that grand room, listening to those grand stories, I pictured the world revolving around myself. I could taste the sangria. I could see what I was wearing. I could feel the waves on my toes. Going abroad was about me. I think that was a fine dream to have, as a kid who didn’t often feel like she deserved much at all. It was healthy to picture something perfect, and have myself at the epicenter of it. It gave me hope for who I could become.
But at twenty years old, sitting on the plane ride across an ocean, entirely on my own, I was able to actually picture the world, outside of myself. The beauty that I have seen is indescribable. The people that I’ve met have shown me kindness, bravery, sacrifice, grit, even in the briefest of interactions. I spent my whole life thinking that I needed to be a part of something big to matter. And now, I realize that being insignificant is the most significant thing about me. I am a tiny piece of something so much greater.
Life does not have to be some immaculate coming-of-age film, decked in gold and ready for the silver screen. Life can be a couple of exquisite moments, squeezed in between long bus rides and shitty hostel beds and anxiety about whether or not you’re being smart about any of it. I’m not the star of this movie. This movie is taking place from seven billion perspectives: perspectives that look out on the markets of Morocco, the lights of France, the mountains of Spain. So as my heart broke for the things that I had lost, my heart glowed for the things that I had gained: primarily, perspective. In just nine weeks, I had grown up.
I am sad that my journey abroad was cut short. Of course I’m sad. But someone is missing their senior prom. Someone had to cancel their wedding. Someone’s mother just died. Someone else’s “trip of a lifetime” got called off, too.
We’re all hurting. We’re all scared. We’re all broken. In the grand scheme of things, my pain is one small shard in this epic stained glass. I don’t know when the light will shine through, but because I have seen it come before, I have hope that it will come again.
Now I have something to cling to, something to put myself back together for.
I urge you to find that thing, too.
It’s not about what we do or how long we do it for. It’s about who we do it with. It’s about why we did it in the first place.
When I was unpacking today, I came across a 10 Euro bill that I didn’t have time to spend in my rush to leave the country. I tacked it to my wall, right across from my bed, so that I can look at it every night before I fall asleep.
I look forward to the day that I can pack up this little room, take that bill off of the wall, and move my life back to the place where my soul felt the warmest.
But until then. I am happy to be home, with my family and my puppy and reliable phone service and ranch dressing. I am proud to be a human of this Earth, in a time when life is halted and we have to cling to each other tighter than ever. I am content to live in the grainy pictures in my head until they become the focused films of my reality again.
For now, that is enough.
For me, this is enough.