Travel Narrative

On love and geographical mistresses

The following post was composed en route from Madrid to Dublin and was a very cathartic exercise in introspection and understanding.

As I sit here on the plane, leaving Madrid, I’ve spent a good deal of time gazing down at the scene below. Spain glides on beneath me, a patchwork quilt of browns and tans, baking under the summer sun. I’ve had a strange and often tumultuous relationship with this country since the first day I set foot on its rugged ground eight years ago.

I was young and naive then, and it was my virgin voyage into uncharted territory outside of the United States. I was curious, overzealous at times, and easily hurt by things I encountered; I learned a lot about myself that summer and it forever changed my worldview and perception of where I fit into it.

After my return from that first overseas experience, I liked to explain to those who asked that Spain and I had a love-hate relationship; I loved it and it hated me. For you see, that summer of 2008 found us in a world where anti-American sentiment was rampant. On more than one occasion, people were outright rude to me when they discovered I was American, and in my naivety it broke my heart. I was there to learn about another culture and embraced it fully and without restraint; I couldn’t understand why I was being met with such hostility in the face of total strangers.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. My Spanish professors were the dearest people. They too loved other cultures and wished to share their beloved language and traditions with them. My main teacher, Gema, took to affectionately calling me mala, or bad, in English, because I often talked about my wild nights out and joked with her and the other students. I was precocious and spunky and she liked the spirit of this young americana. I also remember an encounter with a woman from the south of Spain on a public bus; she was interested in how early we eat dinner in the States and wanted to know what I thought about Spanish culture. She told me to visit Andalucía, where the sun was always shining and the people were just as warm. Incidentally, years later while visiting Sevilla, I found this to be completely true.

This month in Santander, Cantabria sent shockwaves through me. There was so much more out there, so many people to meet and learn how to relate to. Exotic traditions, languages, landscapes, both rugged and gentle, passing through bus windows. They say you always remember your first, and while this metaphor is less racy, a part of Spain stuck with me. It stayed with me like an itch you can’t quite scratch. It would be six years before I returned, but this time around, it was more permanent.

I ran away to Madrid at a time in my life when I was very unhappy. I felt stagnant; I was dissatisfied with my job and my daily routine and because of that, my mental health suffered greatly. I desperately needed a change so I pursued one of the most drastic changes I could find. I got as far away from Baltimore and my life there in order to start anew. Those events of my first few days in Madrid would unfortunately set the tone for my entire year. With the robbery of my most precious belongings from the hostel locker, a dark cloud came rolling in over me. I didn’t realize it so much then, but in retrospect, it helped to negatively shape my views and sentiments surrounding the city I called home.

The preliminary weeks after I hastily found my apartment were the proverbial honeymoon period. I fell head over heals with the city and my life there. It was love at first sight. But like with any other relationship, as you begin to get comfortable, you start to notice idiosyncrasies; bad habits that if completely out of line with your way of thinking can eat away at you like acid. The lack of social graces, apprehension of strangers, and flip attitude toward work responsibilities I encountered rubbed me completely the wrong way. I began to feel so hostile on a daily basis at the lack of disregard many people showed for their fellow humans. By the end of the school year, I couldn’t wait to leave.

This was, as I see now, another learning opportunity. Madrid is not unique from other large cities. A New Yorker might berate you on the subway should you move too slowly, a Washingtonian cuts you off in traffic (maybe not out of aggression but simply due to the fact that DC drivers are the worst I’ve seen). People feel freer to disconnect themselves from others in big cities. Baltimore, though not large in the grand scheme of things, had spoiled me and clouded my judgment. It’s no wonder it’s nicknamed Charm City — people are friendly and for the most part just downright endearing. Coming to Madrid, I wrongly expected too much from strangers and let my own expectations color my attitude. I see now that it was wrong.

When I came back to the U.S. at the conclusion of my school year and subsequent travels through Ireland and Iceland, I felt both relieved and exhausted. I lived with my grandma, across the street from my parents, in remote Hedgesville, WV for a month. I enjoyed infinite solitude there in those woods. I spent endless days drinking pot after pot of tea, devouring books. It took my mind to another place and helped me to synthesize everything I had seen and done while I was away. I returned to Baltimore in October feeling renewed and ready to start again.

Despite a joyous homecoming, it wasn’t long before I grew restless, and my thoughts wandered to that rugged and unforgiving landscape. Spain, with its cobblestone streets, hot summer afternoon naps, and rich red terracotta rooves held a mysterious magic. Again, I felt the roller coaster of emotions that come along with a passionate yet dysfunctional relationship. While I had been so quick to leave it, I missed it after it was gone. Crazy with longing, I seriously entertained the idea of returning to teach for another year. I knew teaching wasn’t what I wanted, but I needed to go back to Europe. My life there had been exciting and novel, and I once again felt like I was being smothered by a predictable routine and the pressure felt by others who were dropping like flies to engagements and children.

Rather than force myself into a job I didn’t completely love in order to be happy with my surroundings, I opted to pursue a second Masters in the field I am most passionate about: health. After applying, being accepted, and ultimately boarding my flight to Ireland, I was well on my way to beginning a course at University College, Dublin. But, it wasn’t even two weeks after my arrival that I was on a plane back to the city that stirred up such mixed emotions in me. In truth, I had ulterior motives. Friends from my teaching cohort, along with a very handsome Brazilian I met the year before, made the decision easy. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to return to the city, but the desire to see those dear to me was the push I needed to buy the ticket.

The first thing that struck me when I boarded the metro en route to Nuevos Ministerios was how seriously I took for granted the ease and connectedness of Madrid’s public transport system. Let’s face it: with a few exceptions, the public transit system in the U.S. is complete crap. Getting most places without a car takes hours by bus. If your city is lucky enough to have a metro, it probably is plagued with problems (see DC metro). Madrid is both extremely walkable and extremely well-connected by bus and metro. This simple welcome back made me very happy.

A few hours later, I would find myself walking through the stifling streets, still boiling from the midday sun. Rob, a Dutchmen and English teacher, and I meandered toward the city center, stopping for beers along the way. We chose a table at one of the terrazas in Plaza Olavide and ordered a couple of cañas. As we waited for our drinks, I took in the scene around me: a couple talking closely and intimately, a table of elderly ladies enjoying wine and tapas. It was an atmosphere of calm and total relaxation. I’m smiling now recalling the moment the waiter put down our beers with a familiar and old companion: a plate of green olives. I beamed at Rob as I sipped my beer. Being outside in the shade, with drinks and a snack made me infinitely happy; the kind of happiness that radiates through you and triggers a genuine and unstoppable smile.

Saturday was even better: brunch on a patio followed by lunch hosted at the house of Rob’s Spanish friend Caridad. Everything was relaxed and easy. We gingerly sipped wine while Caridad prepared bread with jamón, pasta, and salad. We ate, drank, and laughed away the lazy and scorching summer afternoon. Around 5:45, we thanked her for the generous food and great company and departed to meet the Brazilian at his apartment. Rob would be leaving the next morning for a beach vacation in Andalucía so I was to move accommodations.

I spent the next 5 days with the Brazilian whom I had met the previous year, right on the verge of my departure from Madrid. He had spotted me in a bar and by the end of our time together, I had given him a few things: my phone number, precious moments of my remaining time, and unbeknownst to him, part of my heart. We kept in touch off and on throughout the year and when he saw my facebook status announcing my acceptance to UCD sent me a message. “You’re coming back!!!” I told him I would.

Our time together was more than I had hoped. We went to a street festival where cumbia beats boomed from loudspeakers, the smell of roasting meat heavy in the air. He showed me his favorite bars where I met a cast of colorful characters including a bartender who made sure I wasn’t voting for Trump before he handed over the goods. We drank and laughed, spent long days in bed, all while I tried to avoid the envitable truth that I was again to leave that place. He was the first to go; on Wednedsay morning he set off for Malaga to spend a week with friends. With words of a future visit to Dublin, he was gone and in his wake left me with an intense sadness that bordered on crippling. I spent the day in bed, forcing myself to watch TV, read, or do anything that would divert my mind from the empty space beside me. I booked a flight departing the next day to the only place I could wish to go: Dublin, my surrogate and my comfort.

After a frantic morning in the Barajas airport, I boarded my plane with minutes to spare and began to contemplate the week’s experiences. It wasn’t long before the captain’s brogue filled the cabin alerting us to our descent into Dublin. Looking out the window now, I see lush patches of green through the dense white clouds and I know I’m almost home. Ireland has my heart but Spain, as I’ve come to realize, will always be my mistress.

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