When I left San Francisco on a flight to London exactly ten months ago—to the day—I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I was ready to shed my Americanness and become the European I had always wanted to be. I thought I would dread returning to the United States for the year and a half it’s going to take to finish my degree, much less the lifetime I have left to spend there. Sometimes, nearly a year later, I still feel these things. But sometimes I get excited to return, and I think about how traveling for such a long time has given me a newfound appreciation for the familiarity of home.
The interesting thing is that for the first seven months or so, I didn’t slow down or look back once. Living in London was a dream come true and it surpassed New York as my favorite city on Earth. I didn’t want to leave. Then I spent the summer traveling which, although exhausting, was exciting and, though solitary, freeing. It was only after coming to Madrid in September that my own ideas about myself and my desires were challenged.
If I had to pinpoint one moment where I realized it was time to go home, it was probably the day I realized that breakfast in Spain is the same anywhere you go. I remember vividly the moment of frustration as I attempted to go out to breakfast one morning. At home each morning, breakfast a piece of toast with olive oil. Not butter. Olive oil. Most people don’t even keep butter in the house because it’s only purchased specially for baking. No jam, no eggs, no meat for sure. And NYU’s homestay rules prohibit using the kitchen to prepare your own food. Fed up after about three weeks here (yes, we’re still talking about September) I got up early one Saturday to search for breakfast. Turns out, every restaurant that’s open early enough for breakfast has about three breakfast options: a croissant, a cinnamon role or… you guessed it. Toast with olive oil. Literally, the only food you are able to eat before 2.00pm in this country is carbs. And after three weeks, that simply did not work for me.
Now, until this critical moment, I was quite proud of my adaptability. I’d been to over a dozen countries already this year at that point and I had never really been frustrated by unfamiliarity. But time began to take its tole, and as I realized that I was locked into opposite-of-nourishing and frankly tasteless breakfasts for another three months, I was concerned. And I really did start to question who I am as a traveler, and more so, a potential expat.
I’m still quite adaptable, I think. I still dream of working and living abroad for a chunk of my life. But I think what I’m taking from this experience living in Spain (which has a culture that is similar enough to ours while still being quite distinct) is that although study abroad affords a chance to immerse yourself in a new culture, immersion can be overrated. On one hand, I think it’s important to experience to some degree at some point, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that—try as I might—I will likely never feel Spanish. I know I’ll never enjoy their breakfasts and I know I’ll never have their political and cultural biases. And being an outsider is okay. It can be uncomfortable at times, but it’s often more comfortable to allow yourself to be different from your surroundings than forcing yourself to fit into every norm of a different culture. All I can say is, if I ever live in Spain again, I’ll be renting my own apartment and making pancakes every Saturday morning.