Home is Where the Heart Is

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Oviedo’s population of Americans plummeted to nearly zero in the past week-and-a-half, as students left home with their luggage at a nice, Ryanair-accepted size to visit their respective dream destinations in Europe during Semana Santa. With such a long stretch of free time, few stayed in Asturias, much less in Spain. The great tradition of the Eurotrip was in full swing.

Travel has come to mean very little to many of us. After having already set off to see many different parts of Spain and Europe, several hours on an ALSA bus or a two-and-a-half-hour flight are no big thing. But a week and a half is the longest many of us have spent away from Oviedo.

Fellow travelers are often in the business of trading biographies with one another, and so as usual my friends and I found ourselves explaining the ups and downs of Asturias’ capital city to hostel-mates. In our little discourses, the sweet often seemed to be closely followed by the sour.

“Oviedo’s nice,” someone might say, “but it’s really small.” Or perhaps: “The people are a little too bourgeois.” Maybe: “Too traditional for my tastes.”

Wow. Did we even like Oviedo?

I’d throw in a few jabs of my own, but they’d always come out tasting a bit foul. Of course the complaints were valid and true to a degree, but there was no good reason to focus on them. Too traditional? My host family is atheist. Too bourgeois? All the young Ovetenses we’re friends with are down to earth and sans fur coats. Too small? The only reason I don’t weigh 200 pounds right now is because I walk everywhere.

I get the same sticky feeling every time I participate in a conversation that becomes nothing more than a small group of Americans saying, “Have you noticed how Spanish people do x, y, and z?” I suppose it’s all well and good to decompress and immerse yourself in your own tribe this way every once in awhile, but it’s also a pretty dangerous defense mechanism. Those who, after only three months, have decided that they know just how Spain is and isn’t, have never let go of the idea of study abroad as an extended vacation. If you can give yourself up to the idea that rather than being a simple diversion, you might actually leave some of yourself in Spain, you’ll find that the differences become more complex and more familiar at the same time.

Finding things to complain about puts a clean, convenient distance between yourself and the experience. It’s a nice excuse to validate feeling homesick. Around the 3-month mark, a friend and I admitted to hitting a slump period. More than a delayed homesickness, it was a lingering, irritating feeling that the experience stopped being what it should be. I’d think about home, but that didn’t feel like where I wanted to be either. Surrounding myself with the familiar didn’t seem as if it could fix my problem. I was missing Spain and I hadn’t even left it yet.

So I left it. And while vacationing in Italy, I started to uncover the roots of my troubling thoughts. The odd complaints we recite to each other may be due less to the fact that we miss home, and more that we are afraid of missing Oviedo. Traveling a country that speaks a language I don’t know, I wanted nothing more than to hear and speak Spanish. I missed the quick, easy, and still socially-acceptable snack that is the bocadillo: essentially a bread sandwich with a small bit of meat tucked inside. After wandering around big cities, I couldn’t wait to get back to nights in which I knew that a gang of friends could be waiting at a table on Gascona just fifteen minutes’ walk from my apartment. How spoiled we were that after running around Europe for spring break, we’d get to go back to Spain, but even more incredibly: I was missing it like it was home.

view of Gascona

The reason for the slump wasn’t that things had changed, it was that they had finally become normal. But a semester abroad shouldn’t feel like real life, right? It’s just part of a plan—it’s a semester you’ve blocked out for yourself to see a different country, and then when you return you’re going to continue like nothing happened. It was a way to satisfy some credits while having a good time, not something that might have the power to move your life in a different direction. Right?

Wrong.

The problem which faces us is that now that the experience is coming to its end, we’re tasked with the burden of remembering it. How can we find a place for this experience to fit in the progression of our lives when we can hardly take anything back with us? In five weeks, we’ll be forced to abandon a way of life that’s suddenly become our own, and will have hundreds of miles dropped between us and some very dear friends. You can’t enter into an environment so drastically out of sync with that which you’re used to and hope to come out unchanged. Now I worry that once the new environment is gone, the new person I feel I am will somehow go with it. It now feels dangerously important to ensure that what I’ve learned here will remain a functioning part of my life, and not a closed and impenetrable box in my memory, or worse, a black hole which can be overwritten and forgotten.

As we all begin to try and repress the realization that time is beginning to run out, the best we can do is to not start missing Spain while we’re still here and to take advantage of the remaining weeks. If anything, we can find solace in the fact that if when the end comes, readjusting to life in the States is hard and we miss Oviedo to the point of heartbreak, then that only means we did it right.

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