April 2003. 10:00 p.m. I plopped down onto my seat on a train at Gare d’Austerlitz. I was seated next to a row of strangers, alone with my Walkman, and India Arie’s silky vocals in her song, “Beautiful,” which rocked me to sleep with its accompanying melismatic guitar chords.
I was 20 years old, an international student in Paris, and I was on my way to the north of Spain, ready to begin the first part of my spring break. I was scheduled to arrive at the border of France and Spain, from where I’d continue by taking the bus for another six hours or so to meet my cousin and his wife in Oviedo, the town in which they lived.
The transition from France to Spain was like going from seeing porcelain to sunny skies and women with blond streaks and funky red hair. I rode through Basque territory and later discovered that the graffiti I saw from my window seat was the manifestation of a separatist movement happening in the north of Spain.
My trip to Spain, however, went smoothly. My cousin and his wife went to work in the morning while I stayed behind in their apartment. In the afternoon, they returned for lunch and siesta. We travelled to a mountaintop village called Oseja de Sajambre, a village of only about 300 inhabitants, where the surroundings were so quaint that it felt like I was walking in a big 19th century outdoor living room. I remember sitting with a huge family during lunch, during which we talked and ate traditional paella. Ever so self-conscious of my Spanish amongst natives, I mostly just listened.
I spent those first few days of my spring break in Spain, and then – believe it or not – came back to Paris mid-week to finish working on a political science paper that was due on Friday. Like the weight of a ball and chain, that paper was the only thing separating me from the rest of my freedom. I left Spain by train on a Wednesday, arrived in Paris Thursday morning, spent the whole day in the computer lab working on my paper, and then went to class on Friday morning. I made it back home after class in T minus whatever time it was, and packed in a rush to make it to the airport for my flight to Italy. Scrambling, I realized when I got to the train station that my metro card didn’t have enough money to let me go through. Thankfully, this really nice African woman let me pass through the turnstiles with her so that I could make the commuter rail train to the airport that I would have otherwise missed.
I cursed the train and all its delays as I watched the time speed by on my watch. My flight was about to take off in the next five minutes, but I was still five minutes away from the airport. I secretly wished that all it would take were those five minutes for me to make it to the airport, go through security, and land in my seat before takeoff. Of course, I was dreaming. I made it to the airport alright, but I missed my flight to Italy. Luckily, the airline agent put me on the next flight out without issue. I loved Alitalia because of the fact that they fed us almost three times on a 2+ hour flight. Europeans know how to treat their customers, I told myself.
I was headed to Florence, and I was supposed to meet the rest of my study abroad friends at the Duomo – a name which meant nothing to me at the time – until I got there. I remember getting the email before my trip, and how one of the girls in my study abroad cohort said that we’d be meeting at “the Duomo.” I remember thinking at the time that I had no clue what that was, but was confident that I’d figure it out once I got there.
I had some conversational phrases from my travel guide lined up by the time I landed in Florence. After exiting the airport, I found the right phrase and asked the closest person I saw, quite confidently, “Como se arriva a il Duomo?” The female police officer didn’t skip a beat and started giving me a detailed explanation in full-fledged Italian, which caught me by surprise: “….sinistra….” is the only thing I remembered. I was supposed to take a left somewhere, and I understood that it wasn’t supposed to be far. Not wanting to reveal my ill-comprehension, I said “Grazie,” “thank you,” and walked away, knowing that I’d find it somehow. And I did.
The Duomo, alas, was probably the biggest cathedral in Florence whose brick dome could be seen from anywhere in the city. Turns out it was easy to find because it was such a significant landmark (good pick, girls). So when I arrived, I waited in front of it…until no one came. This was well before smart phones, so a short while after waiting at the Duomo, I decided to walk down the nearest street, and found an internet café at the end of it. I learned after checking my email that the meet-up time had been pushed back to a later time (which was great, considering that I had made it there after the earlier planned time because of missing my flight), so I went back to the Duomo and waited until my friend Erin saw me a distance away. Filled with excitement, she waved me down frantically until we were all reunited in front of the Duomo as a group. From that point on, my friends and I travelled through the streets of Italy – specifically Florence and Rome – à l’Auberge Espagnole.
With travel guides in hand, we went to museums (not my favorite exercise; due to my impatience, I usually breeze through them in a matter of minutes), walked across the Tiber River (and it felt like I was walking inside my Latin book), and had luscious gelato after gelato. I remember meeting Giuseppe, an Italian waiter who told us that we needed to come back to visit him in 10 years (we’re about six years past that time now).
I have to say that my Italian comprehension was so good, that after scoring well on a jeopardy-type quiz at one of the museum exhibits (and putting all those Latin lessons to good use), the person behind me asked me a question in Italian to see if she could go next, I presume. Stunned that she thought I could speak the language and not wanting to give away my cover, I just nodded yes.
During that time in my life, all I needed was a map to guide me as I walked all over the cities I traveled, visiting all the tourist spots that those travel guides told me to see. La Fontana di Trevi, Piazza dei Populo, Piazza Navona (from whence I bought these two belts that I have barely worn to this day)…I walked it all, by myself, and spoke to natives in the limited Italian I picked up, and understood them from the Spanish I knew.
I remember calling the hostel I was supposed to stay at in Rome on a pay phone, and struggling through my conversation with the owner as he proceeded to explain to me in Italian how to get there once I arrived. I figured it out, more or less (or probably not at all), by communicating back to him in Spanish and asking him to repeat himself numerous times. I knew he was frustrated. So was I.
In Rome, I remember the time that I got lost late at night while I was walking back to my friend’s apartment. I was in a web of alleyways, and there were so many twists and turns and little streets to go down, that I got completely turned around. Luckily, I found a pay phone, called my friend, and he directed me back to his place. But it was always all good. I was never afraid of not finding my destinations because I knew, somehow, that I’d find them. That was a time in my life when I had no fear, just unbridled curiosity and passion for adventure.
When I was a student in Paris, all of Europe became my backyard. I was lucky to always be down to go on a trip somewhere. When my American friends told me about their plan to go to Italy for spring break, I was down. I had a Brazilian classmate who had said that she was going to Germany for a weekend, and I was down. All I had to do was go to the bus station and buy a ticket; it was that easy. So we went from having class in Paris on a Friday, to taking the bus that night to Germany, where we (mostly I) stayed up talking about American politics with a Frenchman (or maybe he was Canadian) and a German. My friends and I visited Munich; we stayed in a hostel, and we took the tram to a concentration camp in Dachau (that is a whole ‘nother story to process). By Monday, we were back in Paris.
In Paris, I saw the movie, L’Auberge Espagnole, with my American friends. It was about a group of students who met and lived together in Spain during their year abroad. They were all from different countries in Europe, and Spain had become their home for that brief period of time in their lives. During their time abroad, they experienced friendship, heartache, adventure, and comical confusion as they tried to navigate an educational system that was completely foreign to them in all their different languages.
I watched L’Auberge Espagnole with my friend, Kuon, and other friends in a French movie theater. I remember feeling that the actors were literally living our lives on screen: the parties, the dinners, the outdoor escapades, drinking wine in the street, sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur with all of Paris’ university students after finals, and then walking back home with a friend after midnight through all the neighborhoods, cobble stone streets and cafés (Erin!).
Studying in Paris was my L’Auberge Espagnole. Living in that city for six months became my real-world experiment of discovering new friends, places, and different parts of myself. It was the place where I created memories that have lived on with me to this day. And for that, I will always be thankful.