Tales from Abroad: Finding home in new places

Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager

As the end of the semester approaches (and no, I do not want to think about that), I get more and more attached to Madrid. The more I travel, the happier I am to come back to my “home base” in Spain’s capital. I come back to Madrid exhausted and happy to be back in “my” bed. As much fun as I’ve had in the U.K. or Hungary or Morocco, it feels good to be navigating a familiar metro system and to know which grocery stores have what I need. That’s what I’ve liked about living in new places this year — I get to know a city, not just visit it.

Since January of 2015, I’ve lived in a new place every five months; I’ve gotten pretty good at packing and unpacking. When I finished my sophomore spring, I was nervous and excited to start a series of new experiences; now it’s been a year since I finished my last semester in Pittsburgh. Over the summer, I lived with other interns in Virginia. Last fall, I took classes and worked as an intern in Washington, D.C. This semester, I feel lucky to be abroad in Madrid. My year away is teaching me new things about myself.

My concept of familiarity has changed with my time away. I refer to wherever I stay as my home — I instinctively say I’m “going home” after class or after I get groceries, whether in D.C., Madrid, or Pittsburgh. I like the feeling after I’ve learned how to use public transport or when I can give someone else directions instead of asking for them myself. As I’ve become a temporary citizen of several new cities this year, each has had its own lifestyle and its challenges.

The challenges seem more evident in Spain, although the language barrier is less daunting now than when I arrived. I’ve become less self-conscious of my Spanish speaking abilities. In order to function, I’ve had to coexist with certain insecurities; these include my American accent (not as bad as others I’ve heard, but still present), my ignorance of Spanish slang expressions, and my Midwestern habit of smiling at people on the street (which has a connotation beyond friendliness here).

I appreciate the lifestyle here in Madrid. I'm learning about the city from my classes, from funny stories that my host family tells, and from the times I explore on my own. I can walk around the city, go see friends, or take a nice nap — all are socially acceptable. It’s the most relaxed I’ve ever felt in college. In Pittsburgh, friends and school are intertwined. We all live and work and study in the same area, so the separation between school and life is practically nonexistent.

I’ve been thinking of Pittsburgh a lot lately. What does it mean to be part of a community when I’ve been away for so long? I still identify as a Carnegie Mellon student. I consider campus to be one of my temporary homes.

I felt shaken when I learned of the two suicides on campus. Not being in Pittsburgh, I saw the official email without opening it right away. Then I started seeing posts on Facebook, and I began piecing together what had happened. I was heartbroken for my community. I reached out to friends, but I didn’t have much to say; I told them that my heart was hurting, that I couldn’t imagine being on campus — that I was thinking of them. (All true, but also hollow-sounding.) For the first time this semester, I wished I had another Carnegie Mellon student with me in Madrid.

It's hard to determine whether my perspective has changed this year. I suspect that it has, but I don't see evidence of it. I suspect it won't until I'm on the other side, back in familiar territory. For now, though, I don't want to think ahead to re-acclimation. I want to do everything I can while I'm still in Spain.